After a ten-year absence, Hong Kong return to the Asia Cup with nothing to lose and plenty to prove. A young squad under a young captain with a recent history of chokes and costly near-misses, Anshuman Rath’s side will be looking to lay down a marker on the big stage, and set the tone for the long slog back to the top flight of Associates cricket.
If new skipper- new start was the thinking when Rath took over from Babar Hayat after the crushing disappointment in Zimababwe at the World Cup Qualifier that saw them lose their four-year old ODI status and relegated to the second division of the World Cricket League, then their showing at the Asia Cup Qualifier suggests it may be paying off.
Their qualification campaign got off to a less than auspicious start as they suffered a three-wicket loss at the hands of unfancied hosts Malaysia after being bundled out for 161, but from then on they didn’t lose another match. They bowled out both Nepal and the UAE – the two ODI nations at the tournament – for two-figure totals with veteran off-spinner Ehsan Khan starring in both games. The streak set up a showdown in the final with the UAE. With just the one qualification spot on offer, it was the sort of clutch match they have been in the habit of losing, and initially the game game looked set to follow a typical script for Hong Kong.
With rain expected, Rath inserted the UAE after winning the toss, but Emirates opener Ashfaq Ahmed (formerly of Lahore) put Hong Kong on the back foot early. Three quick wickets before the deluge arrived saw Hong Kong fight back, but when the weather cleared, Ahmed carried on where he left off, his 79 runs from 51 balls providing the foundation for some impressive late acceleration from the Emiratis, who finished at 176/9 from their 24 overs.
DLS made that a target of 179, the three wickets before the rain ensuring Hong Kong had a chaseable score from their 24 overs, and an opening partnership of 64 between Rath and Nizakat Khan set them well on the way to a win. But Hong Kong’s fans will know how quickly a good start can evaporate, and so it seemed when the wickets started to fall. Khan was bowled by Rohan Mustafa for 38, Babar Hayat nicked behind in the next over, a run-out two balls later saw Kinchit Shah gone for a duck, and then Rath misread an arm ball, cutting at air as Ahmed Raza pushed one through into his stumps. 82-4. A good start squandered. Familiar territory.
It's 16 February, 2017 at Mong Kok - Hong Kong's home ground - and the hosts have a good start. A great start, actually. It’s the 33rd match of the World Cricket League Championship and they’re chasing 330 against the Netherlands, who they trail by just a single point at the top of the table. Rath is in the middle with Hayat - then still skipper - and they’re closing in on a 200-run partnership. Rath is in full flow, 120 off 110 balls is already a record innings, and with 93 to get and 8 wickets in hand with the required rate barely over a run a ball, they are on their way.
Hayat’s with Rath on 83, until Peter Borren spears one down leg and Wes Barresi whips off the bails – a practised move – to send back Hayat. A hint of panic, and four overs later the game changes. Rath holes out to Michael Rippon for 137, Nizakat Khan follows suit next ball; panic becomes rout, one wicket becomes two, then three, then six.
The tail alternates between wild swiping and timid blocking. They fall five runs short. Even now, with hindsight, it’s hard to gauge what that loss cost Hong Kong. Arithmetic suggests it cost them the WCL Championship, which the Dutch went on to claim. With it came ODI status, the 13th spot in the coming ODI League and 24 fixtures against Full Member opposition over the next three years.
A year later, March 2018 in Zimbabwe, and it costs Hong Kong their ODI status too. The final blow was again delivered by the Dutch, but the story was similar throughout their campaign, a habit of letting teams off the hook with the ball, an over-reliance on Hayat and Rath for runs, a tendency to wilt under pressure.
Last week though, they went off-script. It was set up for another failure, another near-miss. 97 needed at just over a run-a-ball with Rath and Hayat gone, all too familiar. But it didn’t happen. A breezy half-century partnership between Chris Carter and Ehsan Khan took the place of the usual middle-order collapse, and their wickets didn’t slow the scoring. Singles were found, boundaries innovatively manufactured, and the lower order held their nerve. It was the UAE who cracked in the end, a missed run out followed by two consecutive byes in the final over saw Hong Kong to the win, and to a date with Pakistan in Dubai come Sunday, and India two days later.
The beginning of a turnaround for Hong Kong, perhaps, though it cannot undo the consequences of earlier failures. The announcement this week that their matches at the Asia Cup will be accorded ODI status is welcome of course, but it’s still just two games, and they’ll be their last for a good while. Money has always been tight for Hong Kong Cricket, a minor sport in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, and the loss of ODI status and the profile that comes with it arrives at a time when sponsors are hard to find and ICC funding is drying up, compounded by the still greater financial consequences of cricket’s exclusion from the Asia Games, which cut the board off from a crucial stream of state support and has cost the board at least 3 million HKD in funding.
The squad, formerly on full contracts, are having to tighten their belts, with most of the players reportedly on half-pay. Training and touring will also suffer. With the grounds in Hong Kong being owned privately or by the government, the national side have to share facilities, being able to make use of the facilities a few hours a week. Much of their preparation is done in Malaysia, which may have helped for the Qualifier which was held there, but brings its own costs. Hong Kong’s only confirmed cricket after the Asia Cup is currently the World T20 Qualifier scheduled for the back end of next year, with the future of the World Cricket League Championship in doubt and Division 2 still to get through to even get there.
Safe to say then that Hong Kong will look to make the most of the highest-profile matches they are likely to see for a while. To say they are underdogs is something of an understatement of course. Pakistan will be playing on what is effectively home turf and India, even coming off the back of a draining tour in England and without Virat Kohli, remain the second-ranked side in the world. In their last two Asia Cup outings, Hong Kong lost all their games, and heavily. In 2008 they faced the same two teams, losing to Pakistan by 155 runs and to India by 256.
This is a different Hong Kong team though, (Nadeem Ahmed is in fact the only veteran of that campaign) and with an average age of just 23, they are by a distance the youngest outfit at the tournament. They, however, do not lack international experience. Rath, at just 20, is the youngest captain at the tournament by more than a decade. In fact when Bangladesh skipper Mashrafe Mortaza made his international debut Rath was just three years old, but has been playing for Hong Kong for some four years and been seen as captain-in-the-making for much of it.
Since Mark Chapman’s call-up for New Zealand he has also been their stand-out player, and is arguably the most gifted batsman in Associates’ cricket. He and Hayat have both been racking up runs in franchise T20 of late, often against world-class opposition, as has the hard-hitting Nizakat Khan. Questions remain over the resilience of the middle order, especially in the face of express pace, which remains something of a rarity at associate level, and in Hong Kong itself. Unlike some of their associate rivals, Hong Kong’s current side is largely the product of its own development system, with the majority of their players either born in Hong Kong or at least coming through age-group cricket there.
Though obviously encouraging from a development perspective, the consequences of learning cricket on small grounds and often on lightly-maintained or synthetic wickets means the Hong Kong batting line-up tend to share the technical deficiencies that are common to many associate batsmen. Rath is a notable exception, having likely benefited from a fair bit of schools cricket in England for Harrow, and his time in the Middlesex system. He remains the lynchpin in a belligerent but brittle top order that is capable of giving either Pakistan or India at least a scare, but equally capable of an ignominious collapse.
Hong Kong’s own seam attack, marshalled by right-armer Tanwir Afzal (a comparative veteran at 30) tends more toward the disciplined than the dynamic, and the real threat in the attack tends to lie in the spinners, notably Ehsan Khan, their lead wicket-taker at the qualifier, and left-armer Nadeem Ahmed who topped the wicket-taking tables in the WCL Championship. In UAE, one would expect the seamers roles to be principally one of containment, and much will depend on the challengers’ ability to build pressure in the field.
Pressure and surprise are likely to be this young Hong Kong team’s greatest weapons, with little expectation of a win but the talent to grab one if it is offered. The pressure on Rath’s young team comes from the inevitable, unenviable duty of being associates cricket's sole representative at a global tournament, and the knowledge that they have little else to look forward to except a long wait followed by a brief flurry of must-win games on smaller stages.
Conversely, the fear of losing to a 'minnow' can be panic-inducing in established sides, as their own wins over Bangladesh and Afghanistan in recent years attest. For this young Hong Kong side, who had to fight to even to get the tournament, next week is all opportunity and zero risk. With the eyes of the world on them for likely the last time in a long time, Rath and his team have just two matches to show their fans, the world, and probably more than a few talent scouts what they can do.
Underdogs they may be, but Pakistan and India both would do well to be wary of a young man in a hurry.