Cash spur for Hong Kong
Hong Kong's Asia Cup-bound players have been promised a bonus of $100,000 if they beat either Bangladesh or Pakistan in the preliminary round of the six-team competition, which gets under way on July 16 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Long-time local cricket enthusiast Papu Butani has put up the money and is praying Hong Kong can pull off a surprise victory in their first appearance at an official one-day international tournament.
'This is cricket and anything can happen,' observed Butani. 'There is always the chance that Hong Kong can beat Bangladesh. Of course, a lot will depend on how Rahul Sharma plays. If he finds his batting form again, we could be in with a chance. 'I will be very happy to part with the money if Hong Kong can win a match. That would be a great result.''
India, hosts Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates are the other teams in the Asia Cup, which is being revived after an absence of more than five years.
Butani is right on the money in picking Hong Kong captain Sharma as a key player. The skipper will have to play a dominant role with the bat if Hong Kong are to have any chance of making a mark in their historic campaign - coming up against Test nations for the first time in their 100 years of organised cricket.
Sharma, 43, played a huge role when Hong Kong qualified for this Asia Cup by finishing in the finals of the ACC Trophy in Sharjah, back in 2000.
Although Hong Kong lost to the United Arab Emirates in the final, Sharma won the Player of the Series award with his explosive batting throughout the tournament.
'Those are fond memories,'' said Sharma. But in the past few months, he has struggled to duplicate that form, resulting in Hong Kong losing the Tuanku Ja'afar Trophy in Singapore in May, and, more importantly, failing to qualify for next year's ICC Trophy in Ireland when they were knocked out in the preliminary round of the ACC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Hong Kong will need to improve their game 100 per cent if they are to have any chance of picking up Butani's reward. It will be a tough, and, on paper, an almost impossible task.
'But anything can happen. There is always a chance in cricket. We could shock Bangladesh, in the same way we got shocked by Oman and Bahrain at the ACC Trophy,'' said Sharma.
Bangladesh will not be easy meat. Taking this tournament very seriously, the Bangladeshis are already in Colombo, preparing for the tournament. They will not want to be upstaged by a team with whom they used to associate just over a decade ago before winning Test status.
Pakistan will be in a different class. And with news that Shoaib Akhtar could be back in the team, Hong Kong's prospects look slim, if not non-existent.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong are looking at the possibility of leaving for Sri Lanka two days before schedule - next Monday - so as to play a warmup game before their first game against Bangladesh on July 16.