Preston Mommsen leaves the field after his dismissal

Scotland may have made an appearance in the 2015 World Cup, but without more bilaterals against Full Member sides, their fragile presence may fade away

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To Scotland with love

When South African Preston Mommsen first set foot on Scottish shores, little did he know he would one day captain its national team

Tim Wigmore |

Preston Mommsen is late. It is November 9, Scotland's first day of winter training, but a delayed flight from London means that their captain isn't here yet. It is not the only reason that Scotland are waiting. Fitness training can only begin when the girls' netball practice has finished. Scotland might be preparing for their second ICC world event in a year, but they still share their facilities with Mary Erskine School. While it is one of Edinburgh's plushest private schools, the notion that Scotland's cricketers will prepare for the World T20 by spending hours in temporary nets erected on top of these netball courts is incongruous.

Incongruous, too, is the huge glass vase that sits in Cricket Scotland's office. By far the most conspicuous ornament in the room, it is not a memento of a famous Scotland victory. It is the trophy made for an ODI against India in Glasgow in 2007, a game that India won by seven wickets but did not, it seems, value enough to want to keep. In a sense this defeat was a golden day for Scottish cricket: a rare opportunity for them to battle a Full Member. After the 2015 World Cup, Scotland did not play an ODI against a Full Member all year. No one-dayers are currently scheduled for 2016 or 2017.

There is a rich heritage of cricket north of the River Tweed. The first recorded cricket match in Scotland took place in 1785. Don Bradman and his Invincibles signed off from the UK in Aberdeen in 1948. More Test cricketers have been born in Scotland than any other non-Full Member nation. The country has more cricket clubs than rugby union clubs, and according to ICC figures has over 25,000 more cricketers today than Ireland.

Everything that Mommsen left South Africa for - the dream of a World Cup, his very existence as a professional cricketer - was imperilled in January 2014

Such history and potential appear to count for little. Scotland spend much of their existence as a ghost team. When Mommsen joins his team-mates on the netball courts, it has been two months since Scotland's last match; their next fixture is two and a half months away. Until then only indoor cricket awaits.

Scotland is a country in flux, obsessed with questions of identity. It almost voted to leave the United Kingdom in September 2014, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a landslide of Scotland's seats in the general election last May, proof of nationalism's growing salience here. Sometime in between, just before the World Cup, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, met the Scotland cricket team; she was said to know little about cricket. The SNP has not been a consistent supporter of the game either: in 2009, an SNP parliamentarian tabled a motion protesting the level of Ashes coverage in the news on terrestrial TV. Of all the challenges faced by the Associate world, Scotland has a unique one: growing what Scots perceive as a quintessentially English sport in an age when Scotland is moving away from England.

Scottish cricket has historically been tarred as a game for posh types, English people or both. Players at Grange, Scotland's most distinguished club, are still referred to as "the chaps". This century Cricket Scotland has confronted a new image problem: the notion that the national team has become a plaything for migrants from the southern hemisphere. When Scotland missed out on World Cup qualification in 2009, Ian Stanger, a former Scottish international, railed against the reliance upon "Jock Boks", likening selectors to "kids in the candy shop, unable to resist the temptation to try something new in favour of a more tried and tested choice".

Bruh or laddie? While there are rumblings about too many non-local players playing international cricket for Scotland, Mommsen has never been given a hard time for his origins

Bruh or laddie? While there are rumblings about too many non-local players playing international cricket for Scotland, Mommsen has never been given a hard time for his origins © IDI/Getty

So Cricket Scotland seems a little insecure about the fact that its captain spent his first 18 years in South Africa. Proof comes on its website's profile for Mommsen, which begins by describing him as "a graduate of Gordonstoun High School", trumpeting the six months Mommsen spent as an 18-year-old at the alma mater of three generations of the British royal family. When Scotland met South Africa in last year's rugby World Cup, Mommsen went to the game wearing a Scotland hoody.

"Being captain I think it is important that I show my support for Scotland in whatever sport it is or any aspect of life," he says. "They've given me the opportunity to have a life over here and I definitely want to show my support back." If his voice retains a distinct South African twang, it has become diluted over eight years in Edinburgh. "Scottish cricket embraced me as one of their own and I can't ever say I've had a slagging match with anyone about being South African-born. I think people appreciate the fact that I did go to school here, albeit for one year, and beyond cricket I've tried to make a life here."

The story he tells is of unintended consequences - and of the merits of listening to your mother.

Driving around Edinburgh as the rain pelts down, Mommsen seems a man at ease with himself and the world. "This is home for me now"

Mommsen first set foot in Scotland, the country his great-grandfather emigrated from a century earlier, in the summer of 2004. On a school cricket tour of the UK he impressed Gordonstoun, so much that they offered him a sports scholarship two years later. He was not going to take it, preferring to accept a scholarship at the University of Cape Town. His mother tried to persuade him otherwise. "I've encouraged all my children to travel and experience the world," she says. One month into his time at the University of Cape Town, Mommsen called his mother and told her he wanted to go to Gordonstoun after all.

For an 18-year-old accustomed to the cut-throat world of South African school sport, cricket was never easier than when Mommsen played at Gordonstoun's magnificent ground. He became the first schoolboy in the UK to reach 1000 runs in the summer of 2006, and an article in a local newspaper facetiously suggested that he could one day qualify for Scotland.

It did not take long for Mommsen to entertain the thought himself. Both the depth of South African cricket and its quota system limited his opportunity to win elevation from Berea Rovers, Kevin Pietersen's old club side. Seeing his team-mate Wayne Madsen (now Derbyshire's captain) shine but still fail to make the domestic side left an impression on Mommsen. "It was quite difficult to comprehend how someone like him who was so dominant wasn't able to secure a place in the Dolphins team, let alone a contract."

Mommsen resolved to return to Scotland in 2007. He floundered, finding a club only as an unpaid amateur and not mustering a single half-century that season. "Too intense," a team-mate recalls. His form ticked up from 2008, when he successfully "begged" Scotland to let him join in with the national side's training, two years before he qualified for the team.

Scotland's journey to the 2015 World Cup featured blood, sweat and dramatic moments

Scotland's journey to the 2015 World Cup featured blood, sweat and dramatic moments © Getty Images

The life Mommsen had left behind in South Africa was of the comfortable white middle-class variety. He was the baby of the house, the youngest of four siblings. Now in Scotland he was rising at 5am, catching the bus to work in complete darkness, doing a day job as a trainee quantity surveyor at a construction firm and getting back in time for training. "I knew the reason I came here was ultimately to play international cricket, and I was prepared to do anything that needed to be done."

On one of the most expensive roads in Edinburgh lies Carlton Cricket Club. Carlton is a pristine setting for cricket, with Arthur's Seat - "a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design," Robert Louis Stevenson called it - barely a mile away, glistening even on the gloomiest Scottish day. Nestled in the shadow of a lush estate, the main distraction from the view of Arthur's Seat at Carlton is the slope. At one end, scoring a two to midwicket is essentially impossible: if the ball doesn't go for four it will roll back down the slope, as many batsmen attempting a second run have found to their cost. At the other end any player running for the ball must beware of a hazardous ditch.

It was in his first season at Carlton, in 2010, that Mommsen became an international cricketer. When he was handed his Scotland cap for an Intercontinental Cup game against Netherlands in Deventer, even though the crowd numbered only a few dozen, it was a moment of vindication for Mommsen's life choices. Yet being an international player changed little; it merely intensified Mommsen's challenge in juggling cricket and work. He had to beg his employers for extra unpaid leave to keep playing, so every game he played for Scotland cost him money. "It was just the done thing."

To the extent that cricket fans think of Scotland at all, it is through the lens of what they are not: Ireland, who have left them behind in the last decade

What he craved was to be a professional cricketer. In this, Mommsen was fortunate in his timing. At the end of 2006, the ICC signed a $1.1 billion television rights deal for 2007-2015, double the previous. Significant sums of cash seeped down to the Associate and Affiliate nations, who received 6% of the total ICC revenue (under the development fund that was abolished after the ICC reforms of 2014) and then 25% of the profits.

It meant that, for the first time, Associate nations could contemplate genuine professionalism. The first tranche of Cricket Scotland professional contracts arrived in 2008. Three years later, Mommsen was offered one. It meant a significant pay cut; even today the most lucrative professional playing contracts in Scotland are worth no more than £30,000 a year.

"It was never about money for me and it still can't be about money because of the limited funds and limited resources Scotland have. The money just isn't there." In his reluctance to splash out, Mommsen is more stereotypical Scottish than South African. Team-mates still rib him about buying a pair of women's trainers, because they were cheaper, on a Scotland tour.

Driving around Edinburgh as the rain pelts down, doing a tour of grounds that he plays and trains at, Mommsen seems a man content with his life choices, at ease with himself and the world. "This is home for me now."

A victory over Afghanistan in the 2015 World Cup could have made a big difference to Scotland's future

A victory over Afghanistan in the 2015 World Cup could have made a big difference to Scotland's future © AFP

Behind his relaxed demeanour lurks a restlessness. He is a man always fighting to show that he was right to move to Scotland; always fighting to prove that, had he chosen to, he could have made it as a professional cricketer in South Africa too. He was captain of Hilton College, where he was awarded a sports scholarship, and was selected ahead of Dean Elgar for KwaZulu-Natal Schools, and played alongside Richard Levi, Craig Kieswetter, Kyle Abbott and Wayne Parnell. "I look at the players I was playing with and I'd like to think that if I invested time as I did here to my own game then I would have progressed along to that standard and hopefully a standard even higher. But you'll never know. It's just one of those things."

On tours, Mommsen can find it hard to unwind from cricket. He likes to keep his bat in his room, in case he feels a late-night urge to hone his off drive. On the bus to training or a match he is often quiet, deep in thought. "He always looks like he is in the zone, concentrating on something," says one member of Scotland's set-up.

On the field he is anything but pensive. Dynamic fielding is often a hallmark of emerging sides who crave respect, like Zimbabwe in the 1990s and Ireland in recent years. There is no better fielder than Mommsen in the Scottish team. Against England in Christchurch last February, two chances in two balls swirled around in the wind. Both times Mommsen willed himself towards the ball until he was clutching it in his hands.

Short and lithe, Mommsen honed his athleticism playing garden cricket in Durban as a child. According to his sister Ashleigh, Preston would complain to their mum if she refused to play garden cricket with him, and the conversation would always end with Ashleigh agreeing to bowl at him. Professionalism has not diluted this enthusiasm.

When Mommsen stepped out to toss with Brendon McCullum on February 17, his mother was suppressing tears of joy in the crowd

"Preston's the hardest worker in this side," says Scotland coach Grant Bradburn. "It's a fantastic example - your captain is leading the way." The eagerness of the boy who taught his sister how to score for five-day Tests he played with his neighbours has scarcely waned: Mommsen has been told to ease off extra training to avoid being overcooked before matches.

Everything that Mommsen left South Africa for - the dream of going to a World Cup, and his very existence as a professional cricketer - was imperilled in January 2014. In the World Cup qualifying tournament, Scotland were playing for their future as an international cricket team: not merely participation in the 2015 World Cup, or ODI status until 2018, but huge sums from the ICC. "It was do or die for the players because if we didn't qualify then I'm not sure where we'd be. Contracts would become very hard to come by."

Mommsen almost wasn't there. He had missed the World T20 Qualifiers two months earlier with a hip injury. Many hours in the gym ensured he was fit, and he proved it with 118 in Scotland's first match. It was to no avail: Scotland were beaten by Hong Kong, and were left facing a situation brutal in its simplicity. Lose another match and they would be toast. When Kyle Coetzer was injured in their victory against Nepal, Mommsen, previously vice-captain, was enlisted to command Scotland in two of the biggest weeks of their cricketing history. He had to lead his team to five consecutive wins or face a future devoid of the World Cup and, there was a distinct possibility, professional cricket altogether.

"He went into the lion's den," says Craig Wright, Scotland's joint head coach during the tournament. "He's a level-headed character and wasn't too despondent about the situation. We tried to approach it as a challenge rather than thinking, 'We're in the crap here.'"

Mommsen sets an example for his players with his commitment on the field

Mommsen sets an example for his players with his commitment on the field © Getty Images

Mommsen had a simple message for his team: "We have to perform. If we don't qualify here we're losing our jobs and not going to the World Cup."

UAE, Canada, Namibia and Papua New Guinea were all defeated in games in which Scotland batted first. Victory over Kenya would secure World Cup qualification. Scotland needed 261 to triumph; when they slumped to 169 for 6, needing 92 from 77 balls, a vintage tale of Scottish sporting heartbreak loomed.

Mommsen was not to be deterred. He had kept Scotland's batting afloat all tournament and now he made 78, an innings built by haring between the wickets. When he trudged off, it left Scotland needing 35 from 25 balls with three wickets in hand. Rob Taylor ensured there would be no heroic failure.

"It was just indescribable," Mommsen reflects. "It's a cut-throat process qualifying for a World Cup. There's huge pressure and so much riding on it that people don't quite comprehend - the financial security of the organisation, the exposure, inspiring the younger generation by seeing Scotland shirts on Sky Sports. Cricket in the whole country came down to that."

As the side celebrated with a boisterous rendition of "Flower of Scotland", Mommsen could look forward to the World Cup, and the knowledge that his dream was safe for now. He promptly added an unbeaten 139 against UAE in the final, finishing as Man of the Tournament with 520 runs at 86.66. He had galvanised a side that, since 2005, had earned a reputation as the chokers of the Associate world.

Ian Stanger, a former Scottish international, railed against the reliance upon "Jock Boks", likening selectors to "kids in the candy shop"

"I always saw the Scotland team as being a little bit fractious," says Netherlands captain Peter Borren. "That is no longer the case and Preston must take much credit for that." For Mommsen, reward came when he, and not the Aberdeen-born Coetzer, was asked to lead Scotland in the World Cup. When Mommsen stepped out to toss with Brendon McCullum on February 17, his mother was suppressing tears of joy in the crowd.

Scots were crying tears of a different variety in Dunedin later in the tournament. Scotland were an inch away from recording their maiden victory in a World Cup, the distance of a missed run-out, before Afghanistan secured a one-wicket triumph. At the press conference afterwards, Mommsen looked ghoulish, aware that such an opportunity might never be forthcoming again. "Guys still struggle to even think about that game," he admits.

For six weeks Mommsen had been the captain of a World Cup side and a de facto spokesman for the Associate world. Barely a month later he was playing for Carlton against Arbroath United. "It was very challenging, actually, to adapt to that and to get motivated for a club game." He hopes his trip to London will help him avoid such lulls in future. Having played thus far under Scottish residency rules, Mommsen has now been finalising his British passport, which will allow him to play as a local in county cricket.

Scotland is an old cricket country but one still in search of an identity. It was only in 1994, when Mommsen was six, that they became an independent cricket nation and an Associate member of the ICC. Many in the Scottish Cricket Union, as it was then known, were happier to be thought of as England's 19th county. Even hosting Scotland games in the 1999 World Cup did little to erode that mindset. Associate representatives came to regard Keith Oliver, Cricket Scotland chairman from 2002 to 2015, as a fifth columnist, believing that he leaked the contents of Associate meetings to his friend Giles Clarke, who was sitting on the sport nominations committee for the distribution of honours when Oliver was awarded an OBE in January 2014. At a meeting last summer Cricket Scotland told its players to spend less time berating the ICC and ECB.

Mommsen and associates: while the suits in Dubai decide their future, all that Scotland and other teams like them can do on the field is prove they are worth keeping around

Mommsen and associates: while the suits in Dubai decide their future, all that Scotland and other teams like them can do on the field is prove they are worth keeping around © IDI/Getty Images

To the extent that cricket fans think of Scotland at all, it is through the lens of what they are not: Ireland, who have left them behind in the last decade.

"What I admire about them is their absolute doggedness to break into that top ten and to not care about the barriers that are there. They are doing everything they can to break those barriers down. As captain of Scotland, that's something that I would like to do as well."

As Mommsen closes the gates of Carlton Cricket Club, it is still raining on this sepulchral Scottish day. He will spend his afternoon battling a university essay on property development: his intended career after he finishes with cricket.

"It's hard to buy with no money," he laughs. "Perhaps I should rethink a bit."

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

 

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  • POSTED BY Ruturaj on | March 10, 2016, 21:31 GMT

    It's the same old story in all associate countries except Ireland. Without full members regularly playing associates it is hard to see how the situation will improve. Why not prepare a FTP for associates as well? The ICC has to step in somewhere. Full member boards will never play associates by themselves. Let the ICC itself organize a short T20 league at the same time as the IPL every year consisting of Associate and full member players. The IPL season features very little international cricket, and there are enough players from full member teams who have not secured contracts in the IPL and would be willing to play in such a league. At least half of the players must be from Associate nations. There could also be a series of first class 4 day matches in the same period such as Ireland vs Africa XI, Afghanistan vs Oceania XI (Aus-NZ), Scotland vs Asia XI, HongKong vs Asia XI (we can easily have 2 different Asia XI teams) and Netherlands vs Caribbean XI.