Big tournaments have the tendency to spring unknown talents and the Asia Cup did unleash a few. One of them was Hong Kong's Nizakat Khan who scored 92 off 115 balls and nearly helped the Associate nation script the improbable against India. Chasing 286, Nizakat, opening the batting with captain Anshuman Rath, added 174 before a collapse ensued and they fell short by 26 runs.
Nizakat was born in Attock, Pakistan's Punjab before his family shifted to Hong Kong. An attacking batsman who bowls leg spin, he started his cricket in Hong Kong and rose steadily through the ranks before making it to the national team. Asia Cup was the big stage where he shot into the limelight. Firstpost caught up with the Hong Kong all-rounder to talk about the innings, the experience of playing in Asia Cup, cricket in Hong Kong and much more.
Can you take us through that innings of 92 against India?
We started off well. We started building small partnerships taking every 10 overs in the stride. I and Anshi (Anshuman Rath) were continuously talking to each other — 'Got till the end. Go till the end'. The more we take the game deep, it's going to be easier for the rest of the boys. But unfortunately Anshi got out on 174 and then I got out too.
We hadn't played well against Pakistan. Against India, our plan was to play 50 overs, especially the top five-six batsmen, and go till the end. After the Pakistan game, we had a nice little talk and the coaches told us that we have a great opportunity to show the world what we can do. We are a young team. We are learning. And we have shown to the world that Hong Kong can upset big nations. We can honestly beat them.
I was looking good against Pakistan as well but unfortunately, was run out and then I told myself that if I get a chance against India, I have to make the most of it. The approach was just to face the ball and not the bowler. Because there are big names. I kept it simple. I was just concentrating on each and every ball and my feet movement. I was just playing through the line. They were giving two-three loose balls an over. I told myself to be positive and we capitalised on the first 10 overs. I am still improving, learning, working on my fitness and our team is going on a right path.
After India posted 285, what was the mindset going out in the middle?
I and Anshi felt that we can win this game because the wicket was very flat. Although they have very good experienced bowlers, especially Kuldeep Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, we knew that if we get a good partnership, we will win this game. That's what we did in the first 20 overs. We just built small partnerships. Unfortunately, we couldn't finish the game off. That was an easy win to be taken, to be honest. Although the Indian bowlers were good, on the day we were playing well as well. We have shown to the world that if we play against the big nations often, we will beat them regularly. The ICC should also look at our future. We need more cricket. Once we start playing against the big nations, we will understand how we have to develop our game. If we play against the lower teams, we will not learn.
You played a lot of shots square of the wicket. Was it a deliberate plan or that's where your strengths lie?
Actually, that's my strength. But I have also developed my leg-side play as well. I was just playing to the merit of the ball. If the ball was outside off, I was putting it away. If the ball was on the leg stump, I was milking them for singles and twos and if it was short, I was trying to pull. If you can see the radar, I played all around the wicket that day.
After a point, you seemed to be struggling with your body, but Rath was continuously having a word with you, what was the talk about?
I was cramping after I crossed 60 because we had fielded first in 43 degrees. It was pretty hot and I was fielding from boundary to boundary. It's a big ground and the other team players were also struggling. He was just telling me to bat deep. I was cramping very much in my legs and arms as well. I couldn't even hold the bat properly. He even told me that if you are cramping a lot, then you can get retired hurt as well, it will be good for the team. But I told him that you never get these kinds of opportunities in your life, so I was just holding my nerves and giving my best at that time.
What was the plan after you started cramping?
My plan was to go for the hundred. That was my first plan and the second one was, to start hitting after I reach my century. But unfortunately, I got out on 92.
Where does the innings of 92 stand in your cricketing career? What is your next favourite?
Right up there at the top. Scoring 92 against India is a big thing for me. And for the team as well. Losing by just 26 runs against a top Test team and No 2 ODI team is not a bad effort. We did really well. We gave them a very hard time. The next favourite is my century against the Sydney Thunder which had players like Eoin Morgan and Fawad Ahmed, in a practice game in 2016. We were chasing 167 and lost the game by just 6-7 runs and I was there till the end, 104 not out off 62 balls.
What is your biggest strength?
I play straight and over the point. My game is very attacking and that's why I open in T20s. I like to be positive from the first ball. If it's in my slot I will put it away for six, no matter who is bowling.
Hong Kong won their first Associate tournament since 2011, clinching the Asia Cup qualifiers. As a team, what was the mindset going into the main tournament knowing that you would be facing Asian giants?
The mindset was just to show the world how good we are because that was telecasted live. We had also shown in the final of the qualifiers that we can beat big teams. We had beaten UAE, who had the ODI status, two times, and then Nepal as well. We had just one bad tournament - World Cup qualifier and we lost the ODI status. We have worked very hard. If you look at our World Cricket League performances, we were top 3 in the tournament. The ICC should look at that.
What lessons did you take home from the Asia Cup?
The lesson is confidence. If you work hard, you will achieve. Individually as well, when you see big players like Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni, and learn from them, it's a different thing. That's why I was saying, if we get more opportunities against big teams, we will become even better cricketers and then beat them. We have a very young side, our age-group is around 24-25. We are not experienced because we are very young and also because of the lack of cricket.
After you innings, did anyone from the Indian camp have a word with you?
After I got out, Kuldeep Yadav shook my hand and said well played. I was very pleased with his gesture. In the Indian team, they all are very nice and professional and very calm. That was the learning that you have to be calm in any situation, pressure or not.
You also coach at Hong Kong Cricket Club, what's the depth of talent in Hong Kong like?
In our club, we have more than 500 kids from the age of 8 to 19. And that's the group where they can represent club level, then junior leagues and from there the top performers start getting into the national level in juniors. It's one of the biggest cricket clubs in the country. Anshi is also from this club, myself, Kinchit Shah, Anurag Kapoor who is next junior talented player. So we have very good talented players to look after and our club is looking after them very well. There are very good facilities as well - three indoor nets, one beautiful ground, six turf wickets.
We have DB Smashers they have very good junior kids coming up to look forward to in the future. One of the sponsors 'Gencor' owned by Ramaswamy Venkatesh has been helping them. He's been supporting Hong Kong cricket from the bottom of his heart. He is helping the national players as well. New Balance is sponsoring equipments of some of the national team players. We can only thank these people, they are putting so much effort into Hong Kong cricket.
Recently, Jamie Atkinson recently chose to commit to his career in teaching. Chris Carter is set to begin pilot-training in Adelaide. How difficult is it to survive just on cricket in Hong Kong?
It's difficult if you have a family in Hong Kong which one of the most expensive places in the world. But the credit goes to the players with the way they are surviving and still giving their best. 12-13 players are contracted. But the contract money is not enough so some players do coaching work. People like Venkatesh are also helping the players by giving them personal sponsorship. We love cricket and are giving our best. Hong Kong Sports Institute stopped funding us and that was our biggest loss. For the last two years, they were funding us so for the players it was very easy. We could train fully for 25 hours a week, now also we are training but we have to also find work. It's a bit difficult for every player. I have a family and a nine-month-old daughter, so I have to support my family as well.
Cricket Hong Kong had given me the opportunity to coach their kids but now they have their full-time coaches because I am touring a lot and they have to coach the regulars too. We are struggling for income and we are hoping that our salaries will be increased. And ICC should also look into this. If they are taking the ODI status away from us then we are going to lose out on our funding because of which our cricket will go down. We don't want that. We want more cricket and funding to help everyone in Hong Kong. In past few years, we have done very well and we want it to continue. It's just one tournament - the World Cup qualifiers we lost. They shouldn't just look at one tournament. They should look at the World Cricket League, we finished in top 3 and we almost finished top there but we lost to the Netherlands by 6 runs while chasing 329 and that game cost us a lot. Had we won that match, we could have been top 13 in the world.
What kind of part-time job are you doing along with playing cricket?
I am doing coaching with Hong Kong Cricket Club. I am doing Gapers (a type of program where more than 350 boys and girls face off in four age-group sessions) right now, two hours on Wednesday and four and a half hours on Saturday. I am getting just two days of coaching. I don't think that's enough for me. So I am also looking for other work as well. I have to do it in order to support my family. Living in Hong Kong is very very hard if your income is not good.
How can the financial problem be solved?
The only thing that will help is to get back the Hong Kong Sports Institute contract which will bring in the funding. HKSI says that if cricket isn't in the Asian Games, then they won't be able to fund. But unfortunately, there is no cricket at the Asian Games. That's the biggest loss for us as players and even for Cricket Hong Kong as well. HKSI should review this, and support us because, without that, it is very hard for cricketers to survive. It's going to be very tough for Cricket Hong Kong also to help. Also, if we get a good sponsor, it might help the players and we can be full-time cricketers.
What kind of help do you expect from the Full Members and the ICC?
The full members should play more against us. And also with the ICC, if we can get our ODI status back and if we get the full grant, that will help us immensely. We need more cricket. We cannot learn by playing just the Hong Kong Premier League or Sunday Leagues at club level. We need to play international cricket to improve.
In order to be financially stable, are you looking forward to playing in the T20 Leagues?
If we get a chance to play franchise cricket, it will help us even more. It will help us financially as well as practically. By playing against big teams, sharing the dressing room with experienced players, we can become good cricketers.
What next for Hong Kong now?
We have five T20Is and three ODIs against PNG. And after that, they will come to Hong Kong so October will be like home and away series. And then we will have Hong Kong Sixes for three days in October. In December, we have U-23 Emerging Nations tournament involving Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, UAE and Afghanistan. And if I get a chance to play in the franchise leagues, it's going to be a bonus.
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