SUPER SHARMA TO THE RESCUE
Touch wood. But at 46, Rahul Sharma is still looking good with the bat. Maybe it's time he started wearing tights like Superman for he certainly has saved the day for Hong Kong cricket.
Even the name SuperSharma, sounds quite apt following his heroics at the Asian Cricket Council Trophy which ended last week in Kuala Lumpur.
Many people, including this writer, had written Sharma off on the grounds of age. We were fooled into this line of thinking by a couple of recent performances, where by his own lofty standards, Sharma failed to deliver. Not so at the 2006 ACC Trophy where he struck a purple patch of form to head the batting averages and lift Hong Kong into the final.
Ever the master of imperious displays, Sharma couldn't have timed his return to form better. Hong Kong had needed to reach the final at the ACC Trophy to ensure the financial pipeline from the International Cricket Council and its Asian counterpart would not be turned off.
Even Terry Smith, the president of the Hong Kong Cricket Association, a man who normally takes quite a laid-back and hands-off approach to the goings-on in the local game, was sufficiently alarmed to urge captain Tim Smart that Hong Kong needed to perform in Kuala Lumpur.
'Its important for our funding that we do well at the ACC trophy. Our future depends on it. We must raise our game,' Smith warned in his keynote address at the last annual meeting of the HKCA.
Having picked Hong Kong as a place where cricket has a future, and worthy of being fast-tracked, the ICC and the ACC, hands over a total sum of HK$3 million every year. But a spate of poor performances in the past couple of seasons had raised questions as to whether the SAR was worthy of such bounty. So the onus was on Smart and his teammates to perform.
And perform, they did, especially with the bat, the weakest link in recent years. By reaching the final against the United Arab Emirates, the team ensured that the association will receive HK$8 million - if not more - in funds from the international bodies over the next two years.
While it would be churlish not to acknowledge the feats of others like Smart himself, ACC first-timer Hussain Butt, veterans Najeeb Amar and Afzaal Haider, and a crop of youngsters - brothers Irfan and Nadeem Ahmed and Courtney Kruger - the team was mainly powered by Sharma.
A glance at the statistics will tell part of the story. What it won't reveal is that it was Sharma's presence at the crease in the crucial three games against Kuwait (deciding group game), Singapore (quarter-finals), Afghanistan (semi-finals) which was decisive. And by getting to the final, Hong Kong qualified for the Third Division in the World Cricket League, the 2008 Asia Cup, and also stayed on course for the 2011 World Cup.
'This was easily my best tournament in my whole career. I had a wonderful time out there,' said Sharma. 'It would have been a disaster if we had failed to reach the final. That would have been very hard to swallow.'
ACC officials, who every two years expect to see the back of Sharma - who was the oldest man at this year's tournament - are astounded at how this man of iron seems to go on and on.
'It is amazing how Rahul keeps playing, and even more amazing that he is still performing at this level. I wonder what the secret of his longevity is,' said Charlie Chelliah, ACC Trophy tournament director.
Sharma scored 58 (out of a total of 253) against Kuwait, an unbeaten 91 (239) as Hong Kong successfully chased against Singapore, and 32 (158) against Afghanistan. They were all important knocks, holding the Hong Kong innings together. Against Afghanistan it gave the bowlers something to defend.
'Before the tournament began, I was conscious of my age factor, but I got a lot of backing from the guys, especially the coach Robin Singh and captain Tim Smart. In return, I was more focused than ever,' said Sharma.
Singh, for one was delighted that his most experienced player had rediscovered an appetite for runs. 'This is the best I have seen him play. He was mentally stronger and was very determined to do well. It is good for Hong Kong cricket when Rahul plays well,' said Singh.
For Sharma, it was a case of pride - both in his own, and for Hong Kong.
'I take a lot of pride in my performance. But also because Hong Kong has been struggling recently and I wanted desperately to see that we picked up our lost stature. We are one of the top three teams in the second rung in Asia, and I wanted to make sure that we reclaimed that spot.'
Lady luck played a huge role. The difference between success and failure was a miniscule 0.03 runs. It can't get any smaller than that. In time, this Hong Kong team will be known as the 003 side - after the thrilling and unbelievable triumph over Kuwait. It was a match where Hong Kong ran the gamut of all the results possible. The match was tied, Hong Kong were declared losers before the decision was reversed and they emerged winners.
Chasing 253, Hong Kong were bowled out for 253 in 50 overs. Since Kuwait had the better net run rate before the game began, everyone, including the umpires and the match referee, assumed Kuwait had won. It was only when the players returned to their hotel - after being stuck for a couple of hours in Kuala Lumpur's rush hour traffic - did they find out that the organisers had reversed the decision.
'It was unbelievable. We tried our best to lose that game. We needed eight runs in 12 balls with six wickets in hand, and we still managed to mess it up,' recounts Sharma. When he was out, Hong Kong were 204 for three needing another 50 runs. But then the wheels started to fall off, hastened by Butt's dismissal leaving Hong Kong on 240 for five.
'What I found out is that we still don't have the players who can close a game. A lot of people were found wanting on this tour. They have to learn to play at a level, and under pressure, way above what they face in the Sunday League here in Hong Kong,' Sharma said. 'Kuwait were 55 for five before they went on to make 253. If we were 55 for five, and Butt and myself were out, we would have struggled to get past 100. While we have some outstanding youngsters, our problem is that most of the batsmen can't deal with the pressure.'
Fortunately everything seemed to go Hong Kong's way this time. Before the tournament got under way, the team received a huge boost when the ACC cleared Haider to play as a fully qualified resident.
So, instead of one from Haider, Najeeb or Butt (the latter two still qualify under the four-year residency clause and the rules permit only two such players to be allowed on the field) being forced to sit out, Hong Kong were able to pick all three key players. Then luck continued to smile on Hong Kong in the semi-final against Afghanistan. Defending a paltry total, Hong Kong were ahead on the Duckworth-Lewis system when rain forced the match to be called off with Afghanistan needing 51 runs in 15 overs with three wickets left. Hong Kong were through to the final.
'We couldn't have done it without Hussain Butt,' said Sharma. 'I have felt the heat for the past four years having to carry the burden, and I was so relieved that this time we had somebody of his calibre to share the batting responsibilities.'
Four years ago, in Sharjah, Sharma steered Hong Kong into the final of the ACC Trophy. On that occasion, he had a reliable partner in the outstanding Stewart Brew. Brew has since left Hong Kong, and it is no coincidence that Hong Kong's fortunes have also plummeted.
'It was like the old days again, when I was batting with Stewart Brew or Saleem Malik. I didn't have to bat under pressure then. It was the same thing this time too. I never felt under any great stress when batting together with Butt. Together we put on three century partnerships.
'Butt has matured as a cricketer. I know he will serve Hong Kong cricket well in the years to come. But our goal now is to see that others can play around him. It is up to the rest to step forward as far as the batting is concerned,' said Sharma.
In bowling Hong Kong have unearthed a new star in teenager Nadeem Ahmed. The left-arm spinner was probably one of the best on show amongst all 17 countries who took part in Kuala Lumpur. With fellow left-arm spinner Najeeb Amar rediscovering his form after a lengthy recuperation from an operation, and Haider proving he is still a strike bowler, Hong Kong seem well-served in this department.
'Mentally I might be strong, but I realise my physical limitations even though no one could point a finger at me this time,' Sharma said when asked if this could be his last fling. 'I have other commitments like work and family, but I'll try to make myself available whenever I can.'
Even SuperSharma, it seems, needs a break now and then.