|| AFP ||
In a country where a Muay Thai right hook is more familiar than a batter's hook shot, Thailand's pioneering women cricketers are winning hearts with smiles, dance moves -- and skill.
In contrast to Asian powerhouses India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where the game has deep historical roots going back to British imperial rule, cricket remains in its infancy in Thailand and is still virtually unknown.
Thailand qualified for the 2020 Women's T20 World Cup in Australia, where the hosts beat India in the final, but further progress is being hampered by minimal exposure on TV and lack of access to equipment.
They have suffered heartbreak too.
Thailand were on course to reach the 50-over World Cup in New Zealand in March-April, but saw their dream shattered when the qualifying tournament was abandoned because of the pandemic.
None of it helps when trying to raise awareness of cricket in Thailand.
All-rounder Chanida Sutthiruang played in the T20 World Cup, where Thailand failed to win in four games and bowed out in the group stage, and says that even her own family struggle to grasp the sport.
"Most people in Thailand associate cricket with hockey. My parents don't understand what cricket is," the 28-year-old farmer's daughter told AFP.
Making their mark
At early morning training on the outskirts of Bangkok, Natthakan Chantam is all smiles as a bowling machine spits 100kph (60mph) deliveries at her.
"I love the celebrations when you score a run or get someone out... there are celebrations in every moment of the game," the 26-year-old opener, Thailand's top run-scorer at the T20 World Cup, told AFP.
"I think that's the charm of cricket."
Thailand made their international debut in 2007 but have drastically improved in the past three years, said their Indian head coach Harshal Pathak.
"We like to play cricket with an aggressive brand... there's an intent in everything -- the way we bat, the way we field, the way we bowl. There's a businesslike attitude," he told AFP.
"The girls want to make a mark for themselves."
He praised the team's spin attack and said fielding was another strength, with batting slowly developing.
"We're at a stage where we are mastering how to complete games and how to build innings," he said.
The country's cricket association started offering full- and part-time contracts about 10 years ago, which stopped a talent drain caused by women from poorer rural backgrounds being unable to afford to play.
'We felt empty'
But their biggest recent setback was the failure to reach the 50-over Women's Cricket World Cup in New Zealand, the jewel in the sport's international calendar.
Thailand won three out of four matches but the November-December qualifying series in Zimbabwe was abandoned because of the Omicron variant emerging in southern Africa.
The three remaining World Cup places were handed out based on one-day international rankings, meaning Bangladesh, Pakistan and the West Indies qualified instead.
"We felt so empty," Sutthiruang said.
"One minute we were celebrating a win and then a minute later we were told we were disqualified and we had to rush to the airport to get back to Thailand because of Omicron."
The team also missed out on a place in the latest ICC Women's Championship, denying them a chance to test themselves regularly against top sides.
"It sets them back by three years," women's cricket historian Raf Nicholson, from Bournemouth University in England, told AFP.
She said the Thai team needed to play against top-10 nations to take their game to the next level, rather than beating lower-tier teams.
The team could become a model for other nations which have little cricketing history but are keen to develop the game, she said.
"Thailand is an example to any country without a long history of cricket that if you invest enough and are committed enough, good things will happen," she said.
'How cool is this?'
The team now have its sights set on qualifying for the next T20 World Cup in South Africa in February next year.
Whatever happens, former Australian captain turned commentator Lisa Sthalekar said they will continue to win hearts with their captivating smiles, on-field dancing and traditional bowing.
"They played in a spirit... reminded you of when you first started playing the game," Sthalekar said.
"It wasn't: 'I'm in a T20 World Cup, it's do or die, we have to win.'
"It's like: 'How cool is this?'"