'We don't think about the things we don't have' - How a reenergised Dutch unit made it to the World Cup

Positivity, diversity, respect for opponents, and a captain who quietly puts his head down to get the job done have all been part of the story

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Around the time that cricket was considered a major sport in the Netherlands - the 1860s - one of the main methods of transportation in the country's capital, Amsterdam, was by boat. So when Ryan Cook was looking for a team activity ahead of the World Cup Qualifiers, he rolled back the years and took his charges to the canals
"We were in rowing boats and in teams of fours and it was a nightmare. For the first 15 minutes I was like, 'Get me off this boat, I don't know how to do it.' We were terrible," Max O'Dowd said at the team's Harare hotel ahead of the World Cup Qualifier final. "But by the end of it, we kind of got the flow and once we got going, it was alright."
The lesson, of course, was about working together to move forward and it's something the Dutch were reminded of before their most important game of the current campaign, against Scotland. "Cookie got us all little oars and we had to write our name on it and what we were going to bring to the team. The morning of the Scottish game, Bassie (Bas de Leede) wrote, 'Something special.' And then he took five wickets and scored 100, so that was pretty special."
As for O'Dowd, he wrote "comfort", because "I just wanted the guys to come chat to me or whatever, because everyone used the classics like 'energy' or '100%' and all that kind of stuff. And I thought I will do something different."
In the end, the only people who needed comfort were the Scots, who have come close at a second successive qualifying campaign but remain just as far from the ODI World Cup. After their victory, the Dutch were so acutely aware of the pain their opposition was feeling that when they returned to their hotel, where Scotland were also staying, they reminded themselves not to make too much happy noise until they were out of earshot. The celebrations resumed in the team room but publicly, the commiserations continue. "There were four other teams at this tournament who should be going to the World Cup as well," O'Dowd said.
O'Dowd was referring to the entire Super Six contingent, which also included Oman, the hosts Zimbabwe and two-time former champions West Indies, who will miss out on the World Cup for the first time and whose tournament was ultimately derailed when they lost to the Dutch. Chasing 375, Netherlands tied in fifty-overs and prevailed in the one that mattered: the Super Over. "We believe we can beat a lot of big teams. But when a team scores over 370, you know you are going to have to do something pretty special to knock it off," O'Dowd said. "We have a mental coach who does a lot of work with us. And he was talking about luck and magic. Magic is something that you can't control and I don't think it was magic. I think it was a little bit of luck here and there. And then that just spurred us on the rest of the tournament."
While West Indies were guilty of dropped catches, sloppy fielding and a tactical blunder in the Super Over, the Dutch also created their own luck with electrifying running between the wickets to take small bites out of an elephantine target. Running twos has been a hallmark of their approach to this qualifier.
They have run 155 of them, more than any other team, and there's a reason that goes beyond simply putting the opposition under pressure. "Running is such a funny thing because there's so many times in ODI cricket where you knock one down to long-off or you hit one into the cover sweeper, and you kind of just jog that first one. And then the next ball is just not as energised," O'Dowd said. "We're sprinting from ball one. Even if you nick it to [short] third or you hit it straight to mid-off, even if you know it's one, we're trying to create that energy."
"You can't go wrong with Scottie. He has been amazing, very calm, and works extremely hard. And he isn't glamorous. He just puts his head down and works and doesn't really thrive off negativity. He really only focuses on positives."
Max O'Dowd on his captain Scott Edwards
That attitude starts at the top. Scott Edwards has led this vibrant style of play and is what O'Dowd describes as the "epitome" of the Dutch game. "You can't go wrong with Scottie. He has been amazing, very calm, and works extremely hard. And he isn't glamorous. He just puts his head down and works and doesn't really thrive off negativity. He really only focuses on positives. And that's really important," O'Dowd said. "In the past, or with other teams I've been involved in, something negative can fester and it gets bigger and bigger and then, all of a sudden, it becomes quite a big talking point. Whereas now if we spot something negative, we might acknowledge it but then we just move on from it. Scott is very good at that. A working-class man is what I call Scotty. That's the way I describe him and I think he's been really good for us."
At an event with high-performing leaders like Shai Hope, whose team have failed to emulate his consistency, unbeaten skippers like Dasun Shanaka and inspirational characters like Richie Berrington and Craig Ervine, Edwards, who is soft-spoken, may not immediately stand out. But watch him on the field, and there's a quiet intensity to the way he controls the team and he is happy to leave the rest to the extroverts, of which O'Dowd is one.
He is a favourite of the Zimbabwe Cricket Supporters' Union for the special interest he has taken in one of their songs. It's a Castle Corner anthem about drinking (of the alcoholic variety) but it's the tune, not the words, that O'Dowd took to. "The first time I came here I heard some people singing something in the background, and I didn't make much of it. And then we came back for the recent series, I was on the field more this time and they were singing the song. It was just the catchiest song I'd ever heard. Our local liaison told us about the song and it's kind of caught on. I happened to be humming it as we arrived in Zimbabwe this time, because I just love it," he said. "Some guy on Twitter was filming me and that kind of went viral within the Castle Corner community. Every time I'm down in that corner, now they sing the song and I love it. I don't know the words, but I know how it goes."
The ZCSU have asked their members to turn up in numbers at Harare Sports Club on Sunday, despite the home side's absence, partly to thank the ICC for holding the qualifiers in Zimbabwe and partly to cheer on their second side. "The Zimbabwe people have made us feel so welcome and made us fall in love with the culture," O'Dowd said. "The people have been amazing. The hospitality has been great. People are so kind and always willing to help."
The Dutch may find they have as much support in Zimbabwe as they do at home, where their achievement is yet to make the really big news. The newspapers are filled with stories around the football transfer window, Formula One superstar Max Verstappen and tennis player Botic van de Zandschulp, who is currently competing at Wimbledon. Cricket has gone from being one of the most popular sports in the country in the 19th century to a niche interest in the 21st but those who are involved are heavily invested. "It's a community of about 6,500 people in the Netherlands who really know what cricket is and love it," O'Dowd said. "That community live and die for cricket. They absolutely love everything about it. And they're so passionate. I'm pretty sure everyone's pretty proud of what we've achieved over this last month."
Especially because resources remain limited. While there are around 50 clubs in the country and a few thousand active cricketers, even some members of the national squad (such as Teja Nidamanuru) have full-time jobs that they juggle around cricket, and there are only five grass pitches in the top league. O'Dowd's club plays on one of them. "My home ground, VOC, is turf - a grass pitch, a beautiful ground. We have a football field next to it but when we play at another club, it's a football field with an artificial cricket pitch in the middle. One day you're playing on a beautiful cricket oval and the next day you could be playing on a football field with another 16 football fields next to it."
But the Dutch don't let that get to them. "We don't think about the things that we don't have," Logan van Beek said. "We are grateful for the things that we do have and we maximise the things that we do have."
What that is, is diversity. The Dutch team is made up of players from a variety of backgrounds: from Asian expats, who make up 70% of male cricketers in the country, to New Zealanders (like O'Dowd and van Beek) and Australians (like Edwards) with Dutch passports. They are making concerted efforts to reach out to the Afghan refugee community and include them in their development programmes. "The power of diversity brings different flavours and different types of mindsets. If everyone's open and willing to accept all that, it's amazing what you can discover. The flavour we've put together these last few weeks has been the most special team environment that I've ever been part of," van Beek said.
In the last eight months, the Dutch have taken down South Africa (at the 2022 T20 World Cup), Zimbabwe (in an ODI in March this year), and West Indies (at this event). Cook said the first of those was the start of his players proving to themselves what was possible if they played to their own potential. "I felt like we just played really good cricket and South Africa weren't terrible," O'Dowd said. "In the past, we've won games where we've been exceptional and the opposition has been pretty poor but in that game I felt like we just did what we do well, and South Africa just didn't play as well as they probably should have. But it wasn't anything crazy. It didn't feel surreal or anything. It didn't feel like an amazing miracle."
That came later. The Volksrant, a Dutch newspaper, described the win over West Indies as the "miracle of Harare". There may yet to be one, or many, more. Netherlands play Sri Lanka in the final in what is nothing more than an exhibition match, before nine World Cup matches in India, all against Full Members. Doubtless the oars will come out again, as the Dutch look to navigate the biggest of cricketing seas.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket