For a few hours, young Anshuman Rath and his side could revel in the praise that was showered on them from fans old and new, in climbdowns from pundits who had dismissed them after their capitulation against Pakistan, in the camaraderie and kind words of the Indian team — who came by their dressing room for handshakes and selfies after being given an almighty fright in their Asia Cup opener. But it is just that now. Tuesday’s game. The eyes of the world quickly shifted to the India-Pakistan match, and Hong Kong flew home to reflect on how close they came, and to plan for an uncertain future.
To come close was a remarkable achievement of course. India are second on the ODI rankings table. Hong Kong, having forfeited their status at the World Cup Qualifier back in March, do not feature at all, and are now 18th in the notional pecking order. Matches between such disparately-ranked sides rarely happen (the last time was a decade ago, featuring the same teams at the same tournament), no such upset has ever happened. And yet for 84 overs of the match, it looked entirely plausible. Indeed while Rath and Nizakat Khan were at the crease, 170 without loss chasing 285, it looked altogether imminent, at least to those unfamiliar with Hong Kong’s batting habits.
They had India on the back foot, “by the horns” as Rath put it after the game, and had fought hard to put them there. For forty overs of India’s innings, they had toiled in the scorching Dubai heat for precious little reward, Shikhar Dawan had looked immovable, building a platform for the t-minus ten-over launch. But Hong Kong stuck to their plans, and ignition never came. Kinchit Shah first snuffed the fuse with Dawan’s wicket, Ehsan Khan silenced the crowd an over later nicking off Dhoni for a duck, three more wickets followed as India looked in vain for acceleration. They made 48/5 in the last ten overs, and came up 15 short of the 300-mark.
Just 286 to get on a track that was slow but true, the first hints of anxiety might even have crept into the Indian camp at the break. If not, by the half-way stage of Hong Kong’s reply it will have taken a firm hold. 25 overs in, and Rath and Khan had put 130 runs into what would become a record 174-run opening stand. India looked bereft of ideas. The introduction of spin slowed the scoring somewhat, but neither batsman looked bogged down. 34 overs in and still going, 112 to get from the last 16, they had a platform, they were nearly there.
It’s a word as familiar to Hong Kong as the collapse that ensued after Khan’s dismissal. Indeed, it is remarkable just how closely the game followed the typical Hong Kong script, so much so that the fact that they were playing the second best team in the world seemed almost incidental. Rath, who had been visibly struggling in the oppressive heat, hobbling singles and battling cramp, lost his concentration and his shape, and lofted Kuldeep Yadav to Rohit Sharma at extra cover. Khan followed Rath back to the pavilion the following over, trapped LBW by debutant Khaleel Ahmed for 92, and from then on it was one-way traffic.
The adage “get Rath and you’ve got the game” does a disservice to Hong Kong’s brittle but talented batting line-up that features Nizakat and the equally dangerous Babar Hayat, but it still gets plenty of play in Associate circles. Back in March at the World Cup Qualifiers, at Old Hararians CC, Nepal had just beaten Papua New Guinea in a playoff match that had cost the Papuans their ODI status. For Nepal to be sure of replacing them, however, they needed the Netherlands to defend 174 against Hong Kong on the other side of the draw. They duly huddled around a single laptop in their dug-out tent, refreshing the live scorecard that was the only way to follow proceedings down in Kwekwe. When the cheer goes up, you know what it means. Rath was out, Hong Kong were on the way to defeat.
So it was in the World Cricket League Championship a year before, when Rath’s phenomenal century against the eventual champions — the Netherlands again — looked to be steering them to victory in another improbable chase. He was on 134*, Hong Kong 285/3 chasing 331 for a win that would (all other results being equal) have seen them beat the Dutch to the Championship, and a place in the coming full-member ODI league. It was another left-arm wrist-spinner, Michael Rippon, that got him, caught in the deep. A collapse ensued, and they fell five runs short. Such are the moments on which everything hinges in Associates cricket.
Compared to such matches, and the status, funding and fixtures riding on them, even an outing against India on the world stage is, in a way, a low-pressure game. There was nothing but pride on the line, and they picked up plenty of that. Had they pulled off a win they could have claimed a little more, but their situation would be little different. They would still, as it turns out, be on the plane home with a threadbare schedule and a board in austerity-mode waiting for them.
And yet, perhaps we should not underestimate what a little pride can do. Hong Kong have a mountain to climb and little else to sustain them. The cutting of cricket from the Asian Games has meant an end to funding from the HK Sports Institute and left a HKD 3 million hole in the budget, and its effects will be felt both in terms of player salaries and tours. A bad week in Zimbabwe cost them their ODI status and saw them relegated to the second tier of Associate competition. Another bad week could see them slip still further.
World Cricket League Division 2, the same tournament where the Dutch began their slow climb back four years ago, is the first rung on the ladder. Hong Kong will face Papua New Guinea, Namibia, Canada, and two sides from November’s Division 3 tournament in Oman, likely chasing just two or three spots in the next WCL Championship (though the precise structure of that competition will not be confirmed before the ICC meeting in Madrid next month at the earliest). Failure there would have still greater financial implications than the loss of ODI status, possibly cutting Hong Kong’s ICC funding by half.
With board no longer able to keep the full squad on contracts, or at least not contracts of the sort one can live off in Hong Kong, their young players might start to drift away from the team or the game. Mark Chapman, who might well have made the difference against India, has already switched allegiances to his father’s native New Zealand. Jamie Atkinson recently chose to commit to his career in teaching. Chris Carter is set to begin pilot-training in Adelaide. Rath himself chose Hong Kong Cricket over his studies in England, (though that choice was made harder than it needed to be. By rights, he should be plying his trade for Middlesex, who would have offered him a contract were it not for ECB rules barring Associate players from playing in England.)
Many in the squad will face tough choices and hard sacrifices when they get home, but they have had another glimpse of glory. With an average age of just 23, time is on the side of this young team, and so too now is confidence. The Asia Cup Qualifier was Hong Kong’s first associate tournament win since 2011, but it’s hard to imagine their next is as far away. They face a long road back to the top, and their next turn on the global stage may be years off yet, but the task of holding this young team together must surely have been made easier by Tuesday’s game.