Jon Coates, Sunday Herald
Without a shepherd and shorn of the comforting warmth of county expertise, Scotland head across the Irish Sea this week looking rather like lambs to the slaughter. After an arduous tour of England, West Indies' more assured players might view Ryan Watson's men on Thursday, in the compact surrounds of Clontarf, Dublin, as target practice, while the Netherlands and Ireland will provide further stern examination in Belfast on Friday and Sunday respectively.
That's the bleak hypothesis out of the way. Scotland have frequently in the past five years displayed comic-book powers of recovery from hopeless positions, and the redoubtable Watson must summon the spirit of Old Trafford, where the Saltires achieved the only win of his nascent captaincy on a day they were meant to kneel and submit, if they are to take anything from this most pivotal week of the summer. But what a mess from which to embark.
Peter Drinnen, national coach since the beginning of 2006, was uprooted from his post on Friday, nine days after it hit the press that the knives were out for him in the dressing room and boardroom. Most of the senior squad either didn't rate him or lost faith in his ability to coach a national team (he was well-equipped to serve as technical director, where his work landed him the top job) and we might get a clue as to the supposed detrimental effect he had on team morale if the Scots run out giddy and buoyant on the Emerald Isle. You suspect Drinnen's shortcomings were not the only hindrance. But only time will tell.
Cricket Scotland chief executive Roddy Smith, who was preoccupied by organising India's match against Pakistan in Glasgow when news of the insurrection against Drinnen began to leak out, has now gagged his staff, his board and himself. The players have long since known the implications of making controversial utterances in public. Drinnen is off home to Queensland on holiday before, Smith promises, returning as coach of Scotland A and the under-23s.
Numerous nay-sayers have tried to steer pressmen towards their way of thinking. Many of their criticisms of Drinnen were valid, and there is no question that everyone wants the same thing: a competitive national team to make us proud and that will be damned sure to qualify for the next World Cup, the hook on which ICC funding hangs. A couple of dissenters who backed the coach and despaired of the power of the old cartel allowed us to illustrate their protests, on condition of anonymity. Watson might want to compare notes with Tony Blair, on his way to mediate in the Middle East, as he tries to unite the dressing room.
"It has been a difficult time and we just want to get on with playing cricket now," says wicket-keeper Colin Smith, who regains the gloves this week from Simon Smith, the understudy who took over in four-day cricket at the behest of Drinnen. "There are some very big fixtures coming up and we have a Twenty20 world championships to focus on, as well as a heavy program leading into 2009. It really is time to focus on the cricket, with some critical times ahead for Scotland, and we want to move on. But I'm not denying it's going to be difficult. Myself and Ryan Watson haven't batted since June 10 against Warwickshire."
The veteran Aberdonian described this week's assignment as "a tough trip, no matter what is happening off the pitch", but in Scotland's present state, everything about it screams peril. It would tell us a lot about reserves of spirit if they managed not to avoid the wooden spoon. Foreseeably, Watson's team could lose all three games without any undue calamities interfering with the course of play. Indian signs over Ireland and the Netherlands are a distant memory, with each enjoying one easy win over the Scots in the past 12 months and suffering one narrow reverse. Both are closer to full strength this week.
Watson only has Worcestershire's Dewald Nel for Thursday's opener. He has lost Dougie Brown to injury, while Kyle Coetzer will adhere to county championship commitments all week at Durham. Navdeep Poonia has won a recall despite achieving little with Warwickshire this summer, and even less over the winter with Scotland. Elsewhere, the Dutch, who ruined Craig Wright's captaincy swansong by humiliating his team at the World Cup, have their wonder all-rounder, Essex's Ryan den Toeschate, available for one game only. Guess which one. Ireland have somehow prised Eoin Morgan out of his Middlesex commitments and they welcome back World Cup hero Niall O'Brien, along with Andre Botha and Dave Langford-Smith off the physio's bench. Sunday's needle Celtic battle at Stormont should be a fitting climax.
The West Indies remain about as predictable as British summer weather but they have many cricketers of a standard beyond any associate roster. During the recent Test series it was open season on Caribbean cricket but the one-day game was always likely to offer relief. With players like Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, Brian Lara's team should have fared much better in the World Cup Super 8s than they did, and Clontarf is not a big ground. Gayle, Marlon Samuels and Runako Morton hit the ball very straight and very hard, and opposing bowlers will have no room for error.
However, where Lara was once the kingpin, a successor has stood up. "Shiv Chanderpaul is like a limpet," says Smith of the defiant Guyanan, who had compiled 169 unbeaten runs in two ODIs before yesterday's decider against England, and averaged over 140 in the Tests. "It will be a real boost if we can get him out, becase the West Indies really do rely on him to hold the innings together. If you can get him cheaply, I think you would fancy your chances."
With the ball, Fidel Edwards' pace will trouble all the European batsmen and the only thing that could interfere with a Calypso rout in this quadrangular series is attitude. Mind you, the tourists' bumbling administrators still haven't named their squad. It might yet be shallow enough to replenish the underdogs' hopes on player calibre alone.
Ireland's confidence doesn't need any nourishment. Trent Johnston has the strongest team at his disposal since their dreamy World Cup odyssey, which infused the Blarney Army with the belief that their boys belong on any stage in cricket. "The Ireland team already thought that," chuckles Smith. "They have always backed themselves." The only men missing are Boyd Rankin, the giant Derbyshire bowler who is injured, and opening bat Jeremy Bray, who has taken the huff with the amateur environment.
A central figure this week will be Phil Simmons, the barrel-chested Trinidadian who accompanied Ireland at the World Cup and is now their coach. He was in Scotland this week to see his under-23 duties slay their hosts at Meikleriggs, and chewed the fat for a few minutes on the prospect of facing his beloved national team with a clear and present danger of beating them. "Well, it will be nice," he said. "You look forward to playing against them most of all, but it's a time when you always feel you have a chance against them. That's the way it is these days.
"The thing is, on certain days you see a different West Indies team. I don't know what their mentality will be like. If it's bad, then so be it - we will have more of a chance. But let's wait and see. They are finding it hard to live up to the heritage but I think we are expecting a little bit too much from them. There were days when we were on top, and now things have to be built again. But there won't be any mixed feelings for me. None whatsoever. I have friends who we are playing against, but once you get over the white line, it's a different story. I will still take them out for a beer afterwards."
If the Scots are remotely in the mood to go out for a beer after any of these three games, then let them be merry. After weeks of mysterious machinations and soggy setbacks, they yearn to remind themselves why they took up cricket in the first place. A triumph over adversity here and all of their intrigues, as Vladimir Romanov might label them, will be a lot less interesting.