Jon Coates, The Scotsman
Scotland face a revived Pakistan side three weeks tomorrow. West Indies, a formidable one-day unit, await in Dublin 12 days later. On recent form exhibited in the Friends Provident Trophy, the players' only meaningful yardstick, Ryan Watson's men can expect to hold their own with ball in hand. The batting is a big worry.
As the accompanying figures show, the Saltires have lost their way with the bat on the way to six defeats in seven county assignments, despite remaining highly competitive with the ball.
One-day cricket is a batsman's game, even in British conditions. This time last year, Watson, Neil McCallum and Gavin Hamilton had all entered purple patches in form at the opportune time, with Pakistan bound for Edinburgh on 27 June. In the one-day international, Watson and McCallum eased Scotland's early jitters to share 149 runs and set up an engaging contest.
This year, with poor May weather taken into account, no such platform of readiness exists. It wasn't meant to be this way. The players trained continuously from January to March and it was hoped they would hurtle carefree into the summer. Yet, come June, none is in the kind of form he would have hoped to produce. It could be psychological: some of the batsmen fell out of nick while competing at the World Cup and might be grappling with demons. These are worthy and wholehearted competitors and commitment is not in question.
What is clear is that portions of full-time cricket are of little relevance in subsequent periods when bats are exchanged for the tools of a livelihood. At the end of the World Cup, Watson agreed that the players were better prepared for their county exertions but warned that they were heading out of sunny conditions and back to a part-time diet of indoor nets and soggy, spring pitches.
The second truth is that we still lack a culture of batsmanship that yields strength in depth. This should be resolved in time. The second-string have now played 12 days of cricket against county professionals and three players have made centuries in the past three innings, with Qasim Sheikh following his breakthrough with 96. But these are not grounds for immediate one-day international call-ups ahead of players who recently set the World Cricket League alight.
In the meantime, the sad conclusion is that, in an amateur climate, Scotland's top guns cannot attain consistent excellence when they don't play or train at a high level between weekends.
Majid Haq is the only indigenous, specialist batsman averaging higher than 20 in the FP Trophy, with two games left, and Fraser Watts has lost his way. Watson harvested runs for fun last summer but looks a shadow of that player. The middle-order power-hitters, McCallum and Colin Smith, have contributed usefully when time has been short but, when given the chance to sail all day, have fallen off the pier.
As John Blain noted last Sunday, after Derbyshire had routed the Saltires for 102, infuriating contradictions are rife. Grange regulars are tearing their hair out because they have witnessed three batting performances of increasing ineptitude. Little do they know that, away from Edinburgh, the team has been little short of sensational.
While relying somewhat on overseas runs, very few flaws could be spotted in their collective efforts in Leicester and Northampton, where both matches were lost on the last ball. The 27 May victory at Old Trafford, with just nine runs coming from Australians, was an exemplar of the Scots' ability to hunt in packs and retain cool heads. Only the next-day visit to Durham evoked old frailties.
After leaving New Road this week - laden, we hope, with a morale-boosting second or third win - the players will resume their jobs and club commitments for a fortnight before an Intercontinental Cup match against UAE precedes Pakistan's return to Stockbridge on 1 July.
Events in Ayr will determine how fresh the senior players are for Pakistan, but there is little prospect of curing problems relating to high-powered one-day cricket. If, for example, a batsman is stepping automatically on to the front foot, misjudging runs or doubting his ability to play a certain shot, it is too late to do anything about it.
Hussain, the perennial drinks carrier, should be given the last two Trophy games to stake a claim for inclusion against Pakistan. McCallum's credentials for that game are well known and there is a strong argument for accommodating both. Pace duo Blain and Dewald Nel are in the form of their lives and, with runs on the board, Craig Wright, Haq and Glenn Rogers will always keep Scotland in contention. That quintet can hold its own and has earned the selectors' faith. The batting must be fortified in Watson's hour of need.
Scottish Saltires (v Warwickshire, Citylets Grange, tomorrow, 10.45am): from R Watson (capt), G Bailey, J Blain, M Haq, O Hussain, N McCallum, I Moran, D Nel, G Rogers, C Smith, F Watts, C Wright.Warwickshire: from D Maddy (capt), I Westwood, K Sangakkara, J Trott, J Troughton, A Loudon, T Ambrose, H Streak, T Groenewald, D Steyn, L Daggett, N Tahir, J Anyon.