End of Haider's seven-year itch a boost for Hong Kong
Hong Kong received a timely boost on the eve of the ACC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur with the Asian Cricket Council declaring SAR strike bowler Afzaal Haider now qualifies to play under the permanent-residency ruling.
Haider's elevation into this fully fledged bracket allows SAR tour selectors Robin Singh (coach) and Tim Smart (captain) the luxury of picking three stars - Haider, and all-rounders Hussain Butt and Najeeb Amar - for the line-up for today's opening game against Bhutan.
'This is wonderful news. We had applied for Afzaal to play under the seven-year criteria and we were told at the managers' meeting on Sunday night our application was successful,' said Krishna Kumar, the Hong Kong Cricket Association's chairman of selectors.
Before leaving for the 17-team 2006 ACC Trophy, Singh had the problem of deciding who of the three to leave out. Butt, Haider and Najeeb all fell into the four-year residency category and with teams being able to field only two such players on the day, one of the trio would have been forced to sit out.
But the change to Haider's status means Hong Kong can now field all three key players. This is a big development and one which could prove crucial to Hong Kong's fortunes as they go in search of a top-two finish, and thus eligibility for the next stage of the 2011 World Cup qualifying campaign.
'I'm thrilled that, at last, I qualify under the permanent eligibility ruling,' Haider said yesterday. 'With me out of the four-year residency category, we can now field both Butt and Najeeb and this will mean more depth to the batting.'
The 34-year-old right-arm fast bowler has been in town for just on seven years. He made his debut for Hong Kong in April 2004 at the Tuanku Ja'afar Trophy and played in the ACC Trophy that year.
Apart from Haider himself, the person who would have greeted the news most joyously would have been Najeeb. The all-rounder was the most likely player of the three to miss out as it was felt that Hong Kong needed the strike power of Haider as an opening bowler, and the brute force of Butt's bat.
'Most of the time, we have had bad news before a major tournament,' added Haider. 'Either someone was injured or someone was unavailable. For a change we have some good news. Now we must perform. I'm quite sure we will qualify for the knockout stages.'
The Hong Kong squad have had two training sessions since arriving in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. The other teams in the group are Myanmar, who Hong Kong meet on Thursday, Nepal (Saturday) and Kuwait (Sunday). 'We have two fairly easy matches against Bhutan and Myanmar, even though the latter have three or four Australian-born players in the side,' said Kumar. 'Our big games in the group will be against Nepal and Kuwait.'
Hong Kong must finish in the top two to reach the quarter-finals. With Haider, Butt and Najeeb in contention, the task seems easier.
Meanwhile, Nepal opened their campaign with a seven-wicket win over Kuwait. Chasing 205 to win, Nepal reached the target in the 47th over with opener Gyanendra Malla top-scoring with 78.
Tournament favourites the United Arab Emirates also began in style as they thrashed Brunei by 367 runs. UAE racked up a massive 459 for three in their 50 overs, with Arshad Ali scoring 213 not out, and then dismissed Brunei for 92.