Netherlands were once a top Associate. Missing the World Cup, however, could be the first signs of a fade
At the World T20 in Bangladesh last year, Netherlands defeated England. Perhaps "defeated" isn't the right word as much as "battered" is. The Full Member side, one of cricket's Big Three, was bowled out for 88. This wasn't even the first time Netherlands had beaten England at this event. Back in the World T20 in 2009 they overcame the hosts in the opening match.
That first win at Lord's was genuinely remarkable, never more than for its madcap finish. As Stuart Broad bowled the final ball to Edgar Schiferli, two runs were needed. The ball was clubbed back up the pitch, Broad picking it up in his follow-through. He had all three stumps to aim at. He missed, by a distance, and Schiferli and Ryan ten Doeschate scrambled back for two. The elation and the joy were palpable. This was a historic victory. Left-arm spinner Pieter Seelaar calls it his "best day in a Dutch shirt".
Five years later it just didn't mean as much. The first was a watershed. The second was just a professional day at the office. "There's been really good moments in my Dutch career, there's been exhilarating times like Lord's or whatever, but that was just a proper performance against England," the Dutch captain Peter Borren told me. "It wasn't just that they played poorly, we did everything perfectly well."
Most telling is the rise of Afghanistan, who haven't so much gone past as done what the Road Runner did to Wile E Coyote; the Dutch are covered in Afghan dust, almost a forgotten Associate
By 2014 their opponents had also become familiar. The Dutch were part of the English county one-day competition from 2010 to 2013. When they took the field against the English in 2014, they had played against, and beaten, all of these players. "By the third year we were thinking to ourselves, 'These are just average county players,'" Seelaar said. "Every time we played them it was their overseas star that was getting the runs. We didn't feel like we were worse than them."
Netherlands are one of the more ambiguously placed Associate sides. Cricket is hardly entrenched but for a country that has anywhere between 4000 and 6000 active players to have been among the top Associate sides for as long as they have been is a tremendous achievement (in Ireland the participation figure is ten times that). To have beaten England twice at world events, with that kind of base, is remarkable. From the time they qualified for the World Cup in 1996 until the lead-up to the World Cup Qualifier in January 2014 they were among the best of cricket's second tier, winning more games than they lost. Up there but never perhaps among the very best. Nobody, for instance, seriously talked of them as a potential Test-playing nation.
In recent years the sport has probably gone backwards in the country, especially in comparison to the Associate level's more glittering stories. Countries like Nepal, Scotland and Papua New Guinea have caught them up, and in some cases moved beyond them. Most telling is the rise of Afghanistan, who haven't so much gone past as done what the Road Runner did to Wile E Coyote. The Dutch are covered in Afghan dust, almost a forgotten Associate.
In 2014, the Dutch lost their ODI status, compounded by not qualifying for the World Cup, the first they have missed since 1999. How have they found themselves here, consigned to watching the World Cup on TV? In fact, they might not even be able to watch it, which is part of the problem. Most houses in the Netherlands have BBC. When the UK's national broadcaster broadcast county and international cricket there was always a chance you could stumble across it in a Dutch home. Perhaps it would pique your interest into wanting to find out more. But since cricket's move in the UK from terrestrial to Sky TV, behind a paywall, that opportunity has vanished. Other than illegal internet streams, an illegal Sky connection, or the odd Hindi or Urdu channel that may show games, there is no easily accessible way of watching cricket.
Not such a likely dream anymore
© Getty Images
Not such a likely dream anymore © Getty Images
Such a small playing base has meant the Dutch have had to use the pragmatism found in some other Associate sides in building their teams. Most of their teams over the years have been composed of three types of players. There are the Dutch-born players, such as Seelaar, and generally no more than two or three in the national side. Some, like Borren, have learnt their cricket elsewhere - New Zealand in this case - but have made Netherlands their home. Finally there are the true imports, men who, through distant family ties, have a tenuous connection with the Netherlands, but who have hardly played there; players such as ten Doeschate and Tom Cooper.
At the 2014 World T20, Cooper, a hardy first-class cricketer for South Australia, was drafted in to replace Tim Gruijters amid accusations of sharp practice by the Dutch coaching staff. Gruijters, Dutch-born and one who had worked his way up national age-group sides, was unhappy and took to YouTube to blast the Dutch management. According to Gruijters, he was bullied by team management to have a scan on his back, which confirmed the presence of a long-standing back ailment that he had played with and was now used as an excuse to get the ICC to agree to an injury replacement. "I would have played in the Dutch cricket team had it not been for the fact that the Dutch coaching staff decided to bend the rules, act against the spirit of cricket and basically cheat. It's a disgrace," he said. He hasn't played for Netherlands since.
The incident may have been the exception. When you speak to Dutch-born players about the idea of "foreigners", most talk of the competitiveness they bring to sides. Seelaar has lived nowhere other than the Netherlands and for him it is simply about winning games. That is the way cricket grows, the way to get more kids playing the game, the way to secure funding. "Guys like Tom Cooper, Timm van der Gugten and Ryan ten Doeschate, they are guys who are giving us something that we don't have," Seelaar told me. Cooper is an excellent finisher and handy bowler, ten Doeschate's skills are well-chronicled, and van der Gugten is nearly 90mph quick. It doesn't matter so much at the moment that van der Gugten is from Sydney, where he learnt the game, and plays for Tasmania, or that ten Doeschate's formative cricket years were in South Africa (a pitch-side interviewer asked him during one Champions League how it felt to visit South Africa from Holland; he said he grew up down the road).
Their contributions spill beyond wickets and runs, into intangibles such as the confidence they provide to a side. Ten Doeschate hasn't played in an orange shirt in almost four years, but Seelaar still believes "we wouldn't be where we are without Tendo". In fact, in discussing the decline or stagnation of Dutch cricket, it is impossible not to note ten Doeschate moving on. "People will say, 'The Dutch team was good', but we had Tendo and he won us a ridiculous amount of games."
Such are the vagaries of cricket that those outside the Full-Member clique have to fight every few years to decide which of them can still play in "full" internationals
Cooper was instrumental to their success in the World T20 in Bangladesh, but he has always made it clear that Dutch cricket is a means to an end, not the end itself. He has never claimed to be a true Dutchman, though he loves playing for them. "All along - and Dutch cricket has known this - my goal and my dream has been to play for Australia," Cooper told me. The Dutch board approached him, calling him out of the blue and asking him to play. It was not something he could turn down. "Up until that late-night phone message it hadn't even crossed my mind that I was eligible or that there was an opportunity to play for Netherlands."
From 1995 until 2006, Netherlands took part in England's domestic one-day competition. Then the England and Wales Cricket Board dropped their 50-over competition and switched to a new-look 40-over tournament. In 2010 the Dutch returned when Ireland declined an invitation. Results were encouraging, with the side challenging for a semi-final spot in the 2012 season, and the benefits were obvious. "As a Dutch team we are pretty used to going on tour, and we are pretty used to playing tournaments, but to have regular games throughout the summer at Test grounds and good surfaces, week in week out, was really good for our development as a side," Borren explained.
Frequent-flying Dutchman: Ryan ten Doeschate, one of the country's best cricketers, is a sought-after overseas pro in T20 leagues, but he hasn't played for Netherlands in nearly four years
© Associated Press
Frequent-flying Dutchman: Ryan ten Doeschate, one of the country's best cricketers, is a sought-after overseas pro in T20 leagues, but he hasn't played for Netherlands in nearly four years © Associated Press
In 2014, though, the ECB reverted to a 50-over format, deciding Netherlands were surplus to requirements. The abruptness of it is in keeping with a wider pattern of relationships between Full and Associate Members, where assistance feels grudging and neglect routine. The ECB was essentially using Netherlands for the convenience of its own scheduling.
Getting shuffled out of it hurt. "I thought it was a really good thing for us," Seelaar said. "It was a massive disappointment to be out when the schedule was restructured. We were competing. Not to point a finger or be unkind, but if you look at the results Scotland got, they only won two or three games. We were contending for top spot in 2012."
Perhaps the Dutch losing their ODI status was not unrelated. Such are the vagaries of cricket that those outside the Full-Member clique have to fight every few years to decide which of them can still play in "full" internationals. So haphazard is it that often it isn't even made clear to the participants when World Cup qualification or ODI status is at stake. Borren says it wasn't until they had lost two games to Scotland fielding a weak side that anyone told them the World Cricket League (WCL) was a qualifying event for ODI status and World Cup spots.
"I don't think that Test cricket is the future for Dutch cricket at all. I don't think it is the future for many Associates at all"
Their T20 status remains, however, and it is this format, says Borren, that could bear real fruits for them now. "There needs to be a pathway for Associates. I don't agree whatsoever with the ICC's plans to make it a pathway to Test cricket, because I think that is completely unrealistic. I don't think that is the future for Dutch cricket at all. I don't think it is the future for many Associates at all. To try and double and quadruple the number of cricketers in this country is an unrealistic pathway. It is a long process for very little result."
Life is not about to get any easier. Growing that playing base will be a serious challenge. Increasingly the hockey and football - the country's two major sports - seasons are encroaching on the time that cricket is played. It is becoming harder for young players to combine cricket with another sport. Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and Ireland are increasing player numbers year on year; the numbers in the Netherlands are static according to some reports and contracting according to others.
Baby steps: Netherlands introduced themselves to a worldwide television audience in the 1996 World Cup
© Getty Images
Baby steps: Netherlands introduced themselves to a worldwide television audience in the 1996 World Cup © Getty Images
"Associate cricket is getting stronger," says Roland Lefebvre, the high performance manager at the Dutch board, a former captain, and among the country's greatest players ever. "There are a lot of teams getting stronger and it is tougher competition. In the old days you were competing with four or five nations for one or two places. At the moment you are talking about eight or ten teams who are very strong. In Holland youngsters have a lot of interests and it is quite difficult to get people involved in cricket. It is not part of our culture."
They are trying to change this. The board has contracted players on a full-time basis. They are trying to increase their involvement in schools by putting on clinics. Targets have been put in place: by 2018, for example, they want 80% of the national team to be of Dutch-grown players.
Borren believes his side is still good enough to compete not just with other Associates but even with lower-ranked Full Members. "I think there is a much bigger gap between the bottom four Full Members and the top four Full Members than there is between the top Associates and the bottom four Full Members."
Time will tell if he is correct. Ultimately if Netherlands want to keep pace with other Associates they will have to get more kids playing the game, setting up programmes in schools and sports clubs. To do that they will need money, and given the unclear financial implications of the ICC's restructuring, they may struggle to find it.
Peter Miller is a cricket writer and podcaster and co-author of Second XI: Cricket in its outposts. @TheCricketGeek
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.