Botswana all smiles despite defeat
Given that his team had just been thumped by 247 runs in the final of an international tournament, Botswana's captain, Akram Chand, shouldn't really have been smiling quite so broadly. But the margin of their defeat - shot out for 96 in reply to a South African Country Districts XI total of 343 for 5 - was of little consequence.
That is because Botswana's mere presence in the final of the World Cup Qualifying Series in Benoni ensured that they would process to the next stage of a lengthy qualification process - one that could ultimately lead to an appearance in the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. The crunch game had come in their semi-final on Thursday, when Botswana beat Ghana by four wickets to book their places in the African Cricket Association Championships (ACAC) in Zambia in August.
The County Districts XI had only been drafted into the tournament as late replacements for Morocco, who withdrew apparently because their government refused to let the squad out of the country, after the national handball team failed to return from a tour to Europe earlier this year.
They proved to be the best team in the tournament by some distance. Ghana were sent packing for 18 in their first match, and the target was knocked off in just eight balls. The South Africans followed up by dismissing Mozambique for 29, before batting first against Rwanda, and amassing 418 for 6. They then dismissed the Rwandans for 60 in 26.5 overs to win by 358 runs.
In their semi-final, South Africa dismissed Malawi for 20 and took 2.4 overs to reach the target with all 10 wickets standing. However, the tournament winners enjoyed important advantages over the other seven sides in the tournament - they are used to turf pitches, they play regularly and at a reasonably competitive level, and they form part of the rich culture of South African cricket.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Chand was not downcast at the size of their defeat. "Our cricket is more competitive and of a higher standard than in some of the other countries playing here," he told Wisden CricInfo. "We back ourselves to be one of the best teams in Africa."
"In Gabarone we have one main ground, but we're developing a second," Chand said. "In the other towns we have another four grounds. There are no turf pitches in Botswana, we play mostly on Astroturf. A few of our players are based at universities in South Africa, so they have experience of turf pitches, but for the rest of us it's a learning experience."
Despite those hardships, cricketers in Botswana enjoy a busy season. "We start our season with a six-a-side tournament in February and March," Chand said. "After that we have a 35-over league, in which 16 teams play in two divisions. That takes four months, and then we play an inter-town league of 50 overs-a-side matches."
Not surprisingly, Chand's eyes gleamed at the thought of playing in the World Cup. "It would be a tremendous achievement for Botswana," he said. "Playing for the country is one thing, but to make it to the biggest stage of all would be awesome."
Two teams from the ACAC will play in the ICC Trophy in Ireland in July next year, while a third will go to the ICC Trophy Qualifier in Malaysia next February.