After a ten year absence, Hong Kong returns 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 behind Rath taking over from Babar Hayat then their showing at the Asia Cup Qualifier suggests it may be paying off.
The captaincy was transferred after Hong Kong's crushing disappointment in Zimbabwe during the World Cup Qualifier, which saw them stripped of the ODI status that they had enjoyed for four years and it saw them relegate to the second division of the World Cricket League.
Their Asia Cup qualification campaign got off to a less than auspicious start as they went down against unfancied hosts Malaysia. After being bundled out for 161, the hosts chased down the total with three wickets to spare. But from there on they didn’t lose another match. They bowled out both Nepal and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the two ODI nations at the tournament – for two-figure totals, with veteran off-spinner Ehsan Khan starring in both games.
Their streak saw them set up a showdown in the final against 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 looked set to follow the typical script for Hong Kong.
With rain expected, Rath inserted the UAE to bat after winning the toss, but Emirates opener Ashfaq Ahmed put them 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 from where he left. His 79 from 51 balls provided the foundation for some impressive late acceleration from the Emiratis, who finished with 176-9 in their 24 overs. The target was revised to 179 with DLS being applied.
The three wickets before the rain ensured Hong Kong had a reasonable score to chase. An opening partnership of 64 between Rath and Nizakat Khan set them well on the way to a win. However, Hong Kong’s fans were well aware of how quickly a good start can evaporate, and so it seemed when the wickets started to fall. Khan was done by Rohan Mustafa's flight, who was bowled for 38. Hayat nicked behind in the next over, a run-out two balls later saw Kinchit Shah depart for a duck, and then Rath himself, misreading an arm ball, had his stumps disturbed off Ahmed Raza. At 82 for 4, Hong Kong's good start had been squandered. Familiar territory.
Back home at Mong Kok during the 33rd match of the World Cricket League Championship against the Netherlands, Hong Kong's Rath and Hayat kept their side in the 330-run chase with a 197-run partnership. Hong Kong were coasting towards their target requiring 93 runs with 8 wickets in hand with the required rate barely over a run-a-ball. However, Hayat's was out stumped for 83 off Peter Borren's bowling that led to a collapse.
Four overs later, Rath was caught off Michael Rippon's bowling for 137 with Nizakat Khan following him the next ball, three quick wickets sent shockwaves among the Hong Kong camp. They had slumped from 250 for 2 to 285 for 5.
The tail alternated between wild swiping and timid blocking, eventually falling five runs short.
Even now, in hindsight, it’s hard to gauge what the 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 upcoming ODI League and 24 fixtures against Full Member opposition over the next three years.
A year later in March 2018 in Zimbabwe, Hong Kong lost their ODI status with the final blow again delivered by the Dutch. However, the story of letting teams off the hook was similar throughout their campaign. An over-reliance on Hayat and Rath for runs, losing from a good position with the ball and a tendency to wilt under pressure.
Last week though, they went off-script.
It was set up for another failure, another near-miss. With 97 needed at just over a run-a-ball and two main batsmen in Rath and Hayat gone it looked all too familiar. However, a breezy half-century partnership between Chris Carter and Ehsan Khan avoided the usual middle-order collapse, neither did their wickets slow the scoring. Singles were found, boundaries innovatively manufactured and the lower order held their nerve. It was UAE, who crumbled under pressure, a missed run out followed by two consecutive byes in the final over saw Hong Kong scrape through, setting a date with Asian giants Pakistan and India.
It might well be a beginning of a turnaround for Hong Kong, though it cannot undo the consequences of earlier failures. The announcement of their Asia Cup matches to be accorded ODI status is welcome of course, but in all likelihood, it would just last two games and which might 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. The loss of ODI status for Hong Kong comes at a time when sponsors are hard to find and ICC's funds continue to dry up. All this, compounded by the financial consequences of cricket’s exclusion from the Asian Games, cut the board off from a crucial stream of state support, funds costing at least three million Hong Kong Dollars.
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 either government or privately owned, the national side will have to share facilities. Much of their preparation is done in Malaysia, which may have helped for the Qualifier that was held there but brings its own costs. Hong Kong’s only confirmed cricket after the Asia Cup is the World T20 Qualifier scheduled for the end of 2019. 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. While India, even though they are coming back off a draining tour in England and will be without Virat Kohli, remain the 2nd-ranked side in the world.
In their last two Asia Cup outings Hong Kong lost their games heavily – In 2008 they faced the same two teams, losing to Pakistan by 155 runs and to India by 256 runs.
Although, this is a different Hong Kong team (Nadeem Ahmed is the only member of that campaign) with an average age of just 23 they are by a distance the youngest at the tournament and they do not lack for international experience either. Rath, at just 20 years is the youngest captain in the tournament. 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 nearly four years and been seen as captain-in-the-making.
Since Mark Chapman’s call-up for New Zealand, he has also been their standout player and is arguably the most gifted batsman in Associates’ cricket. Of late it is Rath and Hayat, who have been racking up runs in franchise T20 cricket and often against world class opposition, as has the hard-hitting Nizakat Khan.
Questions remain over their middle order, especially against express pace, which remains something of a rarity at the associate level. 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 from the country. Though obviously encouraging from a development perspective, the consequences of learning cricket on small grounds and often on lightly-maintained or synthetic wickets mean the Hong Kong batting line-up tend to share the technical deficiencies that are common among associate batsmen. Rath himself is a notable exception, having likely benefited from a fair bit of school 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 a scare. But, it is equally capable of an ignominious collapse.
Hong Kong’s own seam attack, marshalled by Tanwir Afzal tends more towards being disciplined than the dynamic. The key weapon in their bowling attack lies in the spin department led by Ehsan Khan, their lead wicket-taker at the qualifier, and left-arm bowler Nadeem Ahmed, who topped the wicket-taking tables in the WCL Championship. In UAE conditions, one would expect the seamers roles to be chiefly of containment that will also depend on their ability to build pressure in the field.
Applying pressure and element of surprise are likely to be this young Hong Kong team’s greatest strengths, with little expectation of a win, but the talent to grab one if it is offered. The pressure that is upon Rath’s young team comes from the inevitable, unenviable duty of representing all of associates cricket as its sole representative at a global tournament along with the knowledge that they have little else to look forward to, but 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 for the 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 get to the tournament, it is all opportunity and zero risks. With the eyes of the world on them for likely the last time in a while, Rath and his team have 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.