Agricultural, impure, glorious
Well. Of all the teams to beat, they beat England. Of all the teams to lose to! How was it Netherlands? Those questions and much more besides will be ringing joyfully in Dutch ears, painfully in England's, after the lowly amateurs rudely nudged the sleeping professionals. The Netherlands' four-wicket win yesterday at a gloomy Lord's is an unlikely chirrup for Associate cricket.
The Associates - known as "lesser nations", "minnows" or simply "who?" - are often given an unfair rap, that the vast gap in quality simply doesn't warrant their inclusion in tournaments. Or, worse, that their very existence is somehow fortuitous and sneaky; the charity cases of international cricket waiting for handouts. Sometimes these are fair criticisms: despite their lack of money, each country bickers and rumbles with controversies as frequently as England or India. But then days like yesterday happen, just as Ireland shocked Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup and, briefly, the light is shone on a level of cricket much under-rated.
No one gave Netherlands a chance and, if they're honest, they wouldn't have expected to win yesterday's match either. That they conquered a complacent England was not simply arrogance on the part of their hosts, but the benefits of relying on the basics. As Kenya's coach, Andy Kirsten, told Cricinfo last year, all Associate cricketers can hit the ball just as sweetly as those from India, Australia, England or wherever else. Their technique might be agricultural and impure, or not sufficiently watertight to produce longer innings or memorable hundreds, but when chasing small totals none of that matters.
As Netherlands showed today, the sheer basics of cricket, learned in parks or schools or in the back garden, remain the most fundamental aspect of a team's success. Tom de Grooth, Darron Reekers and Ryan ten Doeschate - perhaps the best Associate batsman of them all - lack the purr of Ponting, the sheer power of Sehwag, but in Twenty20 cricket, it's not how that matters. It's how many, how quickly.
As Associates, Netherlands (and Ireland and Scotland) have so little to lose. Twenty20s are done and dusted in just 240 balls, so they might as well dispense with pragmatic thinking and overly complicated preparation and simply thwack the ball when it's there to be thwacked. The basics still apply, never more so than in this format. Some of de Grooth's strokes were as brazen as the luminous orange kit he wore, but the most obviously evident tactics were of simple cricket: keen running, picking the gaps, turning ones into twos.
"Today I was just in the zone, it worked for me," said de Grooth. "I came in at No. 4 - I was supposed to come in at 7 - but after a few early wickets I came in at 4, and said to Bas [Zuiderent] after a few balls: 'I'm just going to play my game and keep going'. It works. I think we went out there today to play brave cricket, and make England sweat. That was my natural game, how I like to play it."
We have seen so often with England in 50-over cricket their tendency to revert to the 1970s funereal method of scoring runs in the middle overs, nurdling it around asthmatically. And again today (though thanks to Netherlands' tight bowling) they only managed a below-par 73 from the final ten overs. Not so much a case of seeing the ball, hitting the ball, as evidence of minds cluttered and confused with apparently inventive plans and tactics.
Twenty20 offers the big guns a chance to utterly demolish Associates. But in turn, the shortest format offers these so-called fledglings to hone in on the absolute basics, and give it a proper go. Such intrinsic simplicities are often disregarded when playing Associate nations, with the fair assumption that they will not sustain such basics over the course of a match. Shorten the match to 20 overs, however, and the chances of an upset - especially against a one-day side so confusingly inconsistent as England - suddenly become deliciously possible.
Ironically, it could be Associates' background that spurs them to produce these occasional and thrilling upsets. Ireland managed it in the 2007 World Cup, beating Pakistan, and now Netherlands have stunned England. Both teams contain players who have full-time jobs away from the sport, and this is so often their handicap in developing from amateurs into professionals. It pays to remember, too, that Netherlands and Co. simply don't play Twenty20s regularly, and if they do, only against a really rusty club side or two, and often on matting wickets.
"It costs a lot of money to qualify, because we have to take extra days off," admitted Jeroen Smits, the captain, "but we really don't mind. I'd love to take extra days off."
Amateur status is a constant blight on their development and Netherlands, in particular, remain angry at the ECB that they are not included in the Friends Provident Trophy along with (the England-feeder sides) Ireland and Scotland. Ireland, in particular, are the Associate team to beat nowadays, and their exposure to county cricket cannot simply be a coincidence. "I don't know [of] any cricket reasons not to be in that competition," Smits said. "This [win] speaks for itself."
For now, Netherlands are mere temporary visitors to England, but they have given their hosts the most enormous of wake-ups. Their victory today is a cautionary tale against complacency; that no matter who a side is up against, be they baggage handlers or bursars, even minnows occasionally like to win. Sometimes, they richly deserve it, too.
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo