Knowledge, understanding and competency of any discipline takes, more than anything, time. Time dedicated to learning, to being mentored, to practising over and over again with the overall aim of improving yourself. After years, sometimes decades of this, you may find yourself accomplished in said discipline enough so that you can match your skills against another equally matched opponent.
Vietnam cricket had many opponents in its beginnings - and that was before the first game was even played.
Batting, bowling and fielding.
Last one not a problem. First two – major problems. How do you take a group of 24 Vietnamese blokes, who’ve never played, let alone heard of cricket, to an international, ICC sanctioned tournament? Lol, what was I thinking?
Saigon has a wet season, which was inconveniently placed right smack bang in the middle of our preparation period. I don’t know how many times we got rained out, trained in puddles and mud or had to accommodate erstwhile, but with cricket being an outside sport it was a tough opponent to deal with.
I have to say, at the start I couldn't tell any of the players apart, let alone come close to pronouncing or remembering their names. Being a photographer at the time I took a snap of each player, wrote their details down and created a printed out sheet with all the details, carrying it everywhere I went.
The most pressing of issues when training a team is communication. If the trainer cannot communicate what he wants the trainee to learn then it defeats the purpose of training in the first place as nothing is learnt.
In this instance we had a major hurdle in that the team didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Vietnamese. I’ve learnt during my travels that the majority of communication is non-verbal. I could literally travel a foreign country for months, speaking none of their language and get by using a combination of sign language interspersed with the occasional grunt.
(I highly recommend going through a typical day of yours without saying a word. Use your hands, use your wits and throw in a couple of grunts for good measure. Try it, if only at home, for a few hours and see how you go.)
In this I was successful, but the dynamics of managing a team took a lot more than sign language so I took two mornings out of their training each week to teach them English. I also combined this by going to a tutor who taught me Vietnamese twice a week.
In the months of training we developed a combination of signs, signals and words from two different languages that made us at least functional. In essence, we got by with what we had by making a language of our own.
The best had to go.
There was a player when I first started who I was told was the best. He was formally the captain of the national baseball team and had a fierce reputation as a fast bowler. Unfortunately I didn’t see him in my first weeks of coaching as he had commitments elsewhere, but when we scheduled our first game I saw him bowl for the first time.
I was umpire for the game, so had a front row seat as he launched one of the fastest balls I’ve ever seen. I barely had time to see it in flight as it ripped through the air, bounced off the wicket and slammed into the batsman’s helmet. That was fast. I remember saying to myself. With this player in our team we have a chance.
About an hour later the kid had switched ends to bowl the final over, I had switched umpiring positions and was now facing the pitch from the side (leg side umpire). The kid came down, did his thing and I frowned as he released the ball. I realised he was throwing it, his arm was bent at the elbow.
Understanding now why he was so fast I also knew that he couldn’t continue with the action of throwing, it might have passed the VCA but never in a million years would the ICC allow it. If we took him to Malaysia and he bowled like that, he would be no-balled and taken off. Potentially not allowed to play again.
In the months that followed I tried to re-coach him, we tried to impress the importance of a straight arm, but no amount of convincing worked. It was one of the toughest decisions to make, but in the end, I had to cut him from the team.
The economy of a team is paramount to success. And this is not limited to just money (although it certainly helps.) Economy encapsulates the equipment you have, the facilities you use, the support you have in the background – all these resources are things you need to accomplish your goals.
Let us just say we had a low budget.
Notwithstanding the already major issue of having a team that were not adequately skill based in cricket to deal with an international tournament, we also had to make sure they had even the basic of resources to start with.
This is where you get help, cause no amount of what I personally contributed would ever amount to a decent enough economy to get these boys through. My right-hand man, Angelo, (or maybe I was his?) was an absolute king when it came to supporting this mission. Without him the dream would never have been born from the start and would never have been seen through to its conclusion.
It was Angelo in the background, organising so many things that contributed to our economy. He petitioned the support of the other teams in the VCA; he coordinated the SEA Games committee to manage the administrative requirements; he coordinated with the Ministry for Sport (a hell of a job) and; he was the man who in the end got us a major sponsor that helped finance uniforms, equipment and the week-long trip to Malaysia.
We had a low economy, but we had some of the best-intentioned people behind us. People like Sandeep, Munish and Manish, the two Dung's and Sajith … they gave themselves selflessly helping to get us over the line.
We battled bad weather, poor facilities, equipment, money, time, infrastructure, politics and more, but after six months of toiling in Saigon's heat we found ourselves at the end of training, destined to go to Malaysia. Our hopes in our abilities resting on our last game before departure, in which we beat a VCA All Stars team.
The effort in itself was worthy and testament to the commitment of the team during training, going from nothing to competitors ... but was it good enough to compete at an international level?
I remember the first day I met the team and how I thought if these guys were to play today they would be an embarrassment. After six months of preparation I felt optimistic and hopeful, I had given everything I had to making sure that didn't happen to them. Everyone had given their all in this crazy dream of creating a Vietnamese Cricket Team.
Our six months of training was over, now it was time to go to Malaysia.
Worryingly though … our first game in the tournament was scheduled against the number one pick – Singapore.