Mark Watt remembers being asked to pick his number to represent Scotland at the Under-19 World Cup. The cricket star had emerged as one of the country's most talented youngsters in 2012 and was included in the squad to represent his nation.

"He came up to me and asked ‘why did you choose number 51?’," Watt, a left-arm spin bowler, recalled in an interview with Hearts Standard. "'Oh it just goes back in my family, I thought it would be good to represent my country with that number’."

The team's head coach Craig Wright was curious as to the number selection. Watt was wary as to give the real reason having, a few months previously, watched his boyhood club Heart of Midlothian defeat rivals Hibs at Hampden Park 5-1. Not that anyone reading needed reminding, of course. But it is nice to see it written down.

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"When it came to the Under-19 World Cup, it was a few months after that, it was my first ever time to pick a squad number going forward so I picked up 51 for the Under-19 World Cup just on the basis of the Scottish Cup final. Ever since then, it has been my number throughout my whole career. Our head coach Craig Wright was very patriotic and I was a bit worried about explaining that my number was from a football score, he is a big Aberdeen fan."

Watt remembered Wright "loved" the reasoning that it was family-related. Not knowing that "actually it was because Hearts pumped Hibs 5-1".

Cricket journey

The number has followed Watt everywhere in his cricketing journey. A journey that didn't start until his early teens having grown up dreaming of playing for the Scotland football team rather than cricket. A sport which he had little interest in despite his dad's penchant for taking wickets in Leith Links. 

It was only injury that led him to pick up bat and ball much to the bemusement of pals at Trinity Academy. 

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"I grew up football daft, just wanting to become a footballer like most kids in Scotland," Watt said. "I wouldn’t say this about myself but some people have said I have an absolute wand of a left foot. I quite liked sitting in the defensive midfield, spraying passes out to the wingers and forwards. I liked a wee lofted through ball and got myself on the set pieces as well. Like a young Charlie Adam.

"I got injured playing football and didn’t know how to spend my Saturdays so went to watch my old man play cricket at Leith Links of all places to play cricket. I had no clue about it, didn’t know the rules. He’d come back after playing for Leith saying I got ‘four or five wickets today’. I had no idea what that had meant.

"I picked up a ball and bat around 13,14 and just loved it. I tried to go to more lessons, joined a team and by the age of 16, 17 I was playing cricket or sitting on the bench for Leith Athletic so jumped ship and started playing cricket a bit more seriously.

"When I started all my pals at Trinity were slagging me off for playing cricket instead of football, I was getting a bit of banter about missing football training, all the typical stuff, calling me a posh boy. Now they have been full of praise seeing I am in different countries and playing on TV."

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Drummo's Neds

Watt's career has been fascinating. For the second year running he is set to appear in the United Arab Emirate's ILT20, swapping the Desert Vipers for the Sharjah Warriors. He also plays for Derbyshire - one of eighteen first-class county clubs within the domestic cricket structure of England and Wales - and his success with Scotland has taken him around the world as the nation continues to improve and make a bigger mark on what is a complex and frustrating international scene. 

None of that would have been possible, however, if it wasn't for an excellent grounding provided by an initiative to get youngsters from state schools to play the game (and his innate talent, of course). Cricket Scotland helped facilitate the project that saw a group of young cricketers take on the private schools. And they had the Scotland captain at the time, Gordon Drummond, as their coach. It led to the moniker 'Drummo's Neds'. Training would take place indoors at Forrester High School and therefore they couldn't use proper cricket balls until the summer when they could train properly at Carlton Cricket Club.

"We just loved playing against really good opposition and hammering them every time we played," Watt said. "We were a really good side. Private schools didn’t want to play us because they knew how good we were. It felt like a little home. All the boys who didn’t get to play cricket at school went to this thing on a Friday afternoon and just had a really good time playing some really good stuff.

"It showed we were a good side and good enough to play against people who were representing their country at age group level. A lot of the team went on to play Scotland Under-18s and Under-19s cricket."

Including Watt.

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Dubai over Malaga

2012 would be a pivotal year for the then-16-year-old. As well as the aforementioned Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park, he would appear in a Scottish Cup final of his own, helping Heriot's defeat Watsonians. He was coming up against players who had or were turning out for Scotland, including Craig Wright who would recruit him for the Country's under-19s.

"That was a bit of a turning point, playing for Heriots against Watsons in the Scottish Cup final," he said. "I had no idea who I was bowling to which probably helped me. I went on to ball 10 overs, 1 for 30 so bowled really well and against Craig Wright who was the Scotland Under-19 coach.

"He spoke to me after the game, said ‘well bowled, do you want to come to Holland to play in the Under-19 qualifiers, we’d love to have you’. I had a lad's holiday booked at that same time and I was thinking I’d rather go on a lad's holiday. Thanks very much for the offer but no.

"My dad was a bit disappointed, spoke to me and tried to make me go. I was still having none of it. He explained that it was a really good opportunity and why not give it a crack. I took his advice, told my mates I wasn’t going and got even more slagged off for missing a lads' holiday for cricket. But then did really well, performed well for the under-19s and qualified for the World Cup.

He may have missed Malaga with his mates but it meant he was heading to Dubai instead.

The whirlwind would continue. In fewer than three years he had been called into the initial Scotland squad for the World Cup at the beginning of 2015, still just 18 years of age. While he wouldn't make the final 15-man squad for the tournament in Australia and New Zealand he would play club cricket in New Zealand. His Scotland bow would, however, arrive later that year in a T20 match during Scotland's tour against Ireland. 

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Beating England

It was during that period Watt would leave a course at Edinburgh College, signing a full-time contract with Cricket Scotland. By 2018, he was claiming a hat-trick of wickets against England in a one-day international at The Grange in Scotland's Capital. 

It was regarded by the BBC as Scotland's "biggest win in their cricketing history" when it occurred. England were the world's No.1 at the time. Watt was reported to be in "inspired" form.

"It is everything you dream of, playing against England at home in front of a full crowd and beating them when they were ranked best team in the world," he said. "It was such a special day. I’ve been lucky enough to play in the same team as a few of the England players that day. They were like ‘you beat us fair and square’. It wasn’t as if England had a bad day, they still played really well. All my friends and family all there, running on the pitch. That’s something you don’t see very often in cricket in Scotland."

Six years later, his career is now a balancing act between Scotland, Derbyshire and any franchise action he is involved in as is the case this month with the Sharjah Warriors. As expected, it involves "a lot of communication" and also understanding.

"When you are in Dubai and playing in these teams with some of the best players in the world, learning from them it makes it all worth it," he said as he plans to team up with internationals from Sri Lanka, West Indies, Zimbabwe and England. "I’d advise anyone who is looking to do that to give it their all. It is definitely worth it."

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World Cup heartache and bounce back

Such experiences only benefit him when it comes to playing for his country. Last year was an eventful one for Scotland. In football, the World Cup has, since 1978, gone from 16 to 24 to 32 teams. And it will expand to 48. Cricket has gone the other way with the ODI World Cup. When Scotland last competed in 2015 it was 14 teams. In the two tournaments since it has been just 10 teams. 

The 2027 edition returns to 14 countries. It is little consolation for Scotland who got so close to qualifying through one of the two spots that were up for grabs with qualification weighed in favour of the full members of the International Cricket Council. The five teams, including four full members, that failed to qualify through the ICC Cricket World Cup Super League got a second chance in a World Cup qualifier which also featured Scotland and four other teams.

The Scots advanced through the first stage to reach the Super Six in Zimbabwe but despite wins over Sri Lanka and the host nation they had a painstaking defeat to the Netherlands and lost out through the smallest of margins.

"That World Cup just gone is the perfect example of us punching well above our weight, beating full members in that two-week period. We lost only two games and ended up not going to the World Cup. It is a really tough one to take, beating the West Indies, Zimbabwe at home, Ireland, all teams ranked above us and are full member test nations. Beating them and still not making a World Cup, it feels you are hard done by.

"Also, the lack of preparation we’ve had to build a squad and get them ready for the World Cup is unbelievable. I was really lucky to be playing county cricket and get a lot of games under my belt before going to this. But a lot of the boys were just playing club cricket or training indoors and then going facing some of the best bowlers in the world. It is very hard. We have never played all that much against Sri Lanka and spin conditions. For boys to be facing throwdowns inside a gym hall to then going out and representing your country in Zimbabwe facing the best bowlers in the world in tricky situations and tricky wickets.

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"I think we punched well above our weight in the way we performed which I think we always do considering the lack of facilities and the lack of games against these top-playing nations. We’ve done really well."

The way the World Cup is set up and its qualification process naturally provokes frustration and bemusement from those within the sport and those who are not quite au fait with the sport.

"It feels weird calling it a World Cup when there are only 10 nations there," Watt noted. "I think the ICC are the only ones that see the lack of frustration in not having these underdog countries there. It frustrates me when I see them posting footage on Instagram and Twitter of how great it was with throwbacks of the Netherlands beating England, even Kenya doing really well in the World Cup. It just doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to me. 

"As a kid you want to see your country play at a World Cup, sitting up late at night or getting up in the middle of the night to watch your team at the World Cup. That’s what makes kids be like ‘I want to play for Cricket Scotland’. To take away that opportunity is very frustrating."

Scotland will play at a World Cup later this year, however, when they travel to the United States and West Indies to compete in the T20 tournament. Watt and the team had to pick themselves up just two weeks after disappointment in Zimbabwe to ensure they qualified for the T20.

They played six. Won six. And will now face England, Australia, Namibia and Oman.

"It was massively important we qualified for the T20 World Cup," Watt said. "Coming back from Zimbabwe all the boys were really upset, we were so close to qualifying only to go into another qualifier it would have been easy for us to still feel the hangover from Zimbabwe and struggle to qualify or lose the first couple of games. The boys bounced back straight away as if Zimbabwe didn’t happen. We were so focused on qualifying for the T20 World Cup. I’m so proud of how we performed over that month and a half. It was nothing short of incredible."

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Skiving school

Watt will likely continue his role as a key figure in Scotland's bowling line-up. He honed his natural talent through hard work, both by skipping school to work on his game and with his dad to hone a strong mindset.

"When I was younger and playing against these private school teams I was thinking ‘oh god they have the opening bowler for Scotland Under-18s playing, we’re going to get hammered’," he said. "My dad was of the view there was no point in me going if you think you are going to get beat. He put a very good mindset into me, no matter who you are playing against it is still human versus human you can beat anyone on your day.

"I definitely put a lot down to my dad but also me skiving school, going down to David Lloyd to play cricket with my mate who has already finished school. He had nothing to do so he would want to go down to play cricket on the tennis courts there. I’d go and miss biology and go play cricket with him. I should probably give him a ring and thank him for that."

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Bowling prep

No matter what batter is up the opposite end of the wicket, Watt will be prepared. Mentally and analytically, spending time the night before a match studying how his opponents bat against left-arm spin. There is an old-fashioned aspect to it as he jots everything down with pen and paper.

Watt has also caught the headlines with some innovative bowling. In the past summer, he took a wicket from 25 yards while playing for Derbyshire. Ball release from a bowler is usually from a much shorter distance.

"Every batter has their own preparation on how to get ready for every ball," Watt explained. "It’s always looking down, tapping their bat and then they look up and the bowler comes into bowl. I was just in the nets and all my mates tried to whack me out of the nets when batting against me. I was thinking of other ways of catching them off guard and I was just bowling from further back when they were still looking down. They would look up when the ball is halfway through the air and they wouldn't be ready to play an aggressive shot.

"It is within the rules and that’s the case. In a game you are more protective of not getting out so thought I’d give it a shot and see what happens. I brought it into club cricket. Once I get comfortable enough I do it in regional cricket then less meaningful games and when it is ready to go I bring it into all aspects. I put that one through the stages and it worked really well throughout.

"They really don’t like it and find it disrespectful. They are not 100 per cent ready but there is so much of the game going into the batter’s hands, bats are getting bigger, boundaries are getting smaller, pitches are getting smaller, everything is going toward them. I’ve taken it upon my hands to get this little win for the bowlers and to keep them off guard!"

Naturally, the conversation returns to Hearts, reminiscing about the days of Vladimir Romanov and of "prime" Rudi Skacel, Paul Hartley, Jullien Brellier and Edgaras Jankaukas. Watt, who has got Derbyshire teammates to become Jambos, admitted he "loved" the latter. Like many fans, he was of the view even though Hearts "couldn’t afford to do any of it, we had a good time for a few years before it all came tumbling down".

One of the final good moments of that era was, of course, the Scottish Cup final in 2012. It was the perfect moment for a Hearts fan who grew up in Leith.

"I have never been as nervous pre-match before a game than that," he said. "In all the Scotland games I have played, all the pressure situations I have been in, I’ve never been more nervous than before Hearts v Hibs. It doesn’t get any bigger than that."