Hong Kong cricket suffers a collapse in credibility
Irish eyes will never smile on Hong Kong now that the SAR have been shamefully dumped out of the Asian Cricket Council Trophy having failed to get past the preliminary round this past week in Kuala Lumpur.
The once realistic chance of travelling for next summer's ICC Trophy in Ireland and perhaps dreams of qualifying from there for the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies were crushed after Hong Kong lost to the tiny Gulf sheikdoms of Bahrain and Oman, both teams with a cricketing pedigree that hardly matches Hong Kong's century-old background.
'We have lost our credibility by not qualifying for the ICC Trophy in Ireland next year,' summed up a disappointed Hong Kong captain Rahul Sharma after the 11-run loss to Oman in the final group game last Thursday.
In recent years, Hong Kong have proudly claimed that they are one of the top ICC associate members in Asia, and even amongst the rest of the world. In Asia, we were perhaps only second to the United Arab Emirates, while internationally, the SAR was once ranked amongst the top 12 to 16 countries outside the Test-playing nations.
So much so that the ICC - the world governing body - and its Asian affiliate, the ACC, had included Hong Kong on their fast-track programme. Five teams have been earmarked for special attention in Asia - the UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal and Hong Kong.
These five get more coaching, funds, and extra help from the powers-that-be who want to turn them into sides with official ODI - one-day international - status. At present, only Kenya is an ODI country amongst all associate members. In its bid to push the game globally, the ICC wants more countries to have ODI status. Hong Kong is regarded as one such candidate who has the promise and potential.
But the shocking performance in Kuala Lumpur will certainly have raised some eyebrows amongst the game's officialdom. Sharma is certainly right about Hong Kong losing credibility.
'While Asia currently has five countries or cities as fast-track candidates, they should not take anything for granted. They have to continue to perform and keep impressing the ACC. If they don't deliver, they might be lopped off the programme and new teams added,' says ACC development official Anil Kalaver.
Kalaver is from Singapore. He was referring to Singapore who were also knocked out in the preliminary round of the ACC Trophy. Hong Kong are now in the same company of losers. They will have to look over their shoulder, especially at countries like Afghanistan - who along with Oman qualified from Hong Kong's group into the quarter-finals.
Afghanistan made their international debut in Kuala Lumpur. They have stolen hearts and minds of everyone. Their fight to play cricket reads truly like a romantic saga. They have captivated all people who come in touch with them, from media to senior ACC officials, this past week.
Afghanistan have dashing batsmen like firebrand opener Nauroz Khan. They have mesmerising bowlers like left-arm spinner Ahmad Shah. They play cricket with a refreshing passion. It will not be long before the ACC decide to fast-track Afghanistan.
The only way for Hong Kong to stay in the picture is to keep performing and keep constantly reminding the ACC of its potential. But this past week proved that the SAR could not take the heat. They lacked the passion and fight which Afghanistan showed. They did not have the batsmen to deliver the runs.
'It was a pathetic performance,' said disgusted coach Robin Singh after Hong Kong had been knocked out. He was commenting on the Hong Kong batting which throughout the tournament was sorely short of confidence and character. While runs were at a premium, the most damning statistic was that the runs scored also came at a snail's pace. The strike rate of all batsmen, barring Najeeb Amar and to a lesser degree Sharma and Manoj Cheruparambil in the top order, was nothing close to one-day requirements.
Scores of 188 (chasing 212 against Bahrain), 169 (batting first against Afghanistan who thankfully failed and were bowled out for 157) and 174 (chasing 185 against Oman) speaks volumes of the struggle of the SAR batsmen.
They can blame the slow turning tracks. Or the fact that it was played on turf (rolled mud would be a better description) which is a surface alien to Hong Kong. But in the end, these are conditions Hong Kong have been used to playing in, being regular visitors to Malaysia. And anyway, unfamiliar conditions is something an international cricketer should take in his stride.
While Tim Smart and Cheruparambil were the right choices to open the batting, Sharma should have come in at three. In the first two games he came in at four, behind Alex French, and in the last match against Oman, he walked in at five. As captain, Sharma should have taken on the main anchor role. Indeed, this was what he tried to do when at the wicket, and against Bahrain, succeeded to some small degree. But, in hindsight, the failure to come up the order proved costly.
Smart and Cheruparambil had opening stands of 46 and 67 against Bahrain and Afghanistan respectively. Having made good starts, they failed to carry on and this was costly. Both batsmen were comfortable against pace but showed they lacked the technique to face spinners and as a consequence, the runs dried up when the slower bowlers came on resulting in bad shot selection.
The most experienced batsman, to face both pace and spin, of course, was Sharma. It should have been him walking in at number three. In the past, we have seen Sharma open the innings. He has opened with Stewart Brew, a batsman who knew how to keep the scoreboard ticking along. Hong Kong's failure to do that was another, if not main reason for the downfall.
'I missed having someone like Stewart Brew batting with me at the other end. He was one player who could take the pressure off you. There was no one capable of playing that role in this team,' said Sharma ruefully.
While Ilyas Gull is no Brew, Hong Kong should have tried to use him in this role. Gull is a batsman who does not sell his wicket cheaply. Like Saleem Malik used to be, the Pakistan Association all-rounder is a fighter. But Gull, who before this tournament had an average of more than 70, batted at eight, six and seven in the order in the three games.
Sharma's reluctance to come up the order and Gull's demotion down the order may have cost Hong Kong. We will never know if this is the case. What we know is that the batsmen failed miserably to deliver. It is true the bowlers, too, were guilty of not finishing off an innings - for instance allowing Bahrain to recover from 79 for five to score 212. But the final analysis will finger the blame on the batting.
After Afghanistan had given Hong Kong a lifeline by beating Bahrain, the SAR only needed to beat Oman in the final game to top the group and avoid meeting favourites UAE until the final. But they failed to chase 186 against Oman.
'This is the team who are going to play in the Asia Cup against Pakistan and Bangladesh. If we can't get 186 against Oman how can we even get 100 against Pakistan or Bangladesh,' asked Sharma. 'What are we going there for?'
Hong Kong and the UAE will play in the Asia Cup, revived after an absence of four years, in Colombo next month. Hong Kong qualified for this tournament by entering the finals at the 2000 ACC Trophy in Sharjah. On that occasion, we had a player like Brew around, and Sharma was in fine touch and unafraid to bat up the order.
'This was my poorest tournament with the bat,' admitted Sharma. His bowling too has suffered. At 43, time seems to have caught up with Hong Kong's mainstay batsman. He failed, and the rest of the Hong Kong batting collapsed around him. Cheruparambil is one player who can fill Sharma's shoes, but his penchant to give his wicket away cheaply, has been his downfall so far.
'We just did not seem to have the ability to rotate the strike nor go after the bowling,' Sharma said.
Hong Kong will quickly have to find batsmen with spine to shore up the side if they are to remain in the good books of the ACC. The batting malaise was first seen at the 2001 ICC Trophy in Canada when Hong Kong were knocked out in the first round. Things have not changed much in the past three years. The only new thing is that Hong Kong won't be around at the next ICC Trophy, for the first time in nearly three decades.