Bas Zuiderent June 15, 2009

'We're not a Mickey Mouse team'

The Netherlands have played three World Cups, but their biggest moment in cricket only came 10 days ago. One veteran has been there all along

It was bittersweet for Bas Zuiderent when on June 5 the Netherlands recorded the biggest triumph in their cricket history, shocking hosts England in a World Twenty20 thriller. As the team made merry that evening, at the back of Zuiderent's mind was the thought of the money he was losing.

Zuiderent runs a physiotherapy practice back home in Holland. "I don't get any wages if I'm not working in my day job. We get a daily allowance and no match fee," he reveals, on the eve of their next game, against Pakistan. (They lost by 82 runs to exit the tournament).

It is a harsh reality for the cricketers from the Associate nations, who have to keep motivating themselves to script such improbable wins in the hope of being able to raise a platform from which they can start dreaming big. Cricket is a minority sport in their countries and the boards don't have the finances to run professional set-ups. The players are in the game for love not money. Zuiderent is a fine example of that sort of devotion.

He started when he was 10. "My cousin played cricket at the time and I remember that my mother asked whether I was interested in playing as well. I didn't think much of cricket initially. Those funny white outfits...

"Then my mother took me to a local club in Rotterdam. I can recall bursting out in tears because I didn't want to join in! After she calmed me down, I joined in the training session and I got hooked on to the game straight away. I never looked back.

He was still in school when he made his debut for Holland as a 16-year-old in the World Cup qualifiers played in Kenya in 1994. His first international came in the World Cup two years later. "I was 18. It has been a long journey," Zuiderent says as his eyes look up staring in the distance. "I'm actually playing the best cricket of my life now. The older I get, the better cricket I've started to play."

Zuiderent thinks it has to do with the team ethic, where there has been a radical turnaround from the laidback fashion popular in his early days in international cricket. "Luckily I've been part of the transformation," he says. "It has changed in the way the team operates, trains, eats, sleeps and looks after themselves. It has become a professional set-up."

The Dutch still have only three pros, Dirk Nannes, Ryan Ten Doeschate and Alexei Kervezee, but they are inching towards the level of a professional sports team. The results have been there to see, in the World Cup qualifiers and in the World Twenty20.

Zuiderent provides an example of the changing face of Dutch cricket. "In my first years, a past player, in his 40s, would arrive at the ground, inspect the field, do his own thing, like hit a few balls, go back to the hotel and wait for the evening when he could drink five or six whiskies. These were the old-school cricketers, who did not take things seriously and were super unprofessional."

"I didn't think much of cricket initially. Those funny white outfits... "

It took at least 10 years before things really changed. "We are a very, very tightly wound team unit, very proud team," he says. What he doesn't come out and say is that he would have loved to have today's team environment when he started. That might have given him more of a chance at realising his potential.

In his second international game, against England in the 1996 World Cup, Zuiderent became the second youngest player in World Cup history to score a half-century; Sachin Tendulkar, the youngest, was about 200 days younger when he did. Zuiderent points out the fact with a shy smile. "That was massive for me [the fifty], but it is a shame, really, that I never kicked on and went for bigger things than that."

He still remembers it clearly. "What was most impressive was to walk out and rub shoulders with the likes of Jack Russell, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart, Dominic Cork… I was just loving it. It was almost unreal," Zuiderent says. Later that evening, still on cloud nine, he ran into Geoffrey Boycott in the team hotel, who tapped him on the shoulder to say "Well played, son." Zuiderent won't forget that. "It was so nice of him to say that."

Zuiderent says that it was only when he started to think more about cricket that he ended up complicating things, and went through a period where he put pressure on himself with expectations. "In the last few years I've allowed myself to settle. It allows me to just relax," he says.

A couple of months after his first World Cup, playing for Holland against Worcestershire he hit 99, and was offered a contract. He decided to finish his studies in economics instead, but soon gave that up. "One morning I woke up in Amsterdam and suddenly realised what I was doing was not what I wanted to do. I sort of had an epiphany, where someone was literally talking to me and told me to use the talents I was given." Within a week he flew to England and signed a contract with Sussex.

The first Dutchman to represent Holland in English county cricket was PJ Bakker, who opened the bowling for Hampshire with Malcolm Marshall. Roland Lefebvre played for Somerset and Glamorgan, and Andre van Troost, who played at Somerset, was rated by Desmond Haynes as the "quickest white guy" he ever faced. Zuiderent was the first specialist batsman. What are the moments that stand out from his county cricket days, I ask him.

He talks of his maiden one-day and first-class centuries, which came in the space of two days. The one-day hundred made him the first centurion at the Rose Bowl. "No one can take that away from me," Zuiderent says with a big smile. The four-day hundred came against Nottinghamshire, against a bowling attack that featured, among others, a certain Kevin Pietersen. Zuiderent smiles when he speaks of lofting Pietersen over mid-off for a six. "He was as cocky as he is today, and that is his massive strength."

That statement illustrates the divide between the top professionals and amateur cricketers. Zuiderent is not embarrassed to admit it. I ask him what the difference is between him hitting a straight drive and Tendulkar doing the same. Zuiderent rolls his eye at Tendulkar's name, before saying the difference lies in the execution. "Sachin can hit a Brett Lee 98mph delivery at will. We can do it as well, but we don't control it as well, because Sachin is used to doing it continuously."

Unlike the players from the top cricket nations, who spend most of their waking hours training, much of Zuiderent and his team-mates' time is spent at their dayjobs. "Because I work 40 hours a week, I cannot afford to practise every day. Our skills are there, but we can't execute those skills enough to be like Yuvraj Singh or Irfan Pathan, because they can hone their skills much more every single day against the best."

So when victories like the one against England come, they are hard to forget. Zuiderent has been there for Dutch cricket's peaks: qualifying for the World Cups in 1996, 2003 and 2007, and this World Twenty20. But the England win takes prime spot on the list. "It was our first victory against a full-member country in an official game," he says with pride.

The fact that England took the contest as a bout against a featherweight is not lost on Zuiderent. "England would always believe that they are far superior to the Dutch, and in a way rightly so, because they would win 95 out of 100 times. But never, never take a team lightly that is hungry to win. That is a big mistake you can commit. And England did exactly that. [They thought] we are a Mickey Mouse team. We are way better, and we've shown that.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo