Survival of the fittest in Darwin
A lot will ride on the shoulders of Ilyas Gull (pictured) - the first Pakistani to captain Hong Kong - when the ICC World Cricket League Division Three tournament gets underway in Darwin today.
Hong Kong meet Uganda in the first of three group games today, and Gull will call upon the team to get off to a flyer if they are to qualify for the Second Division and continue on the road to the 2011 World Cup. They should answer his call for Gull is regarded as 'one of us' and not 'one of them' - a role predecessor Tim Smart was unfortunately cast in.
Smart's captaincy had its share of problems, some of which bubbled to the surface especially during the last ACC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur when the players were left smarting at the decision by coach (Robin Singh) and captain to pick the under-performing Alex French for the final.
French has gone, while Smart stepped down from the hot seat due to work commitments. Ironically, Singh, too, is not around with Sameer Dighe deputising for him - Singh is on duty with the Indian test squad in Bangladesh. Hong Kong now have a new set of hands on the tiller.
'One of the most attractive attributes of Gull is his ability to get the team together. He will get the team to gel around him,' says Krishna Kumar, the Hong Kong Cricket Association's chairman of selectors. 'He is also a keen competitor, and a team builder.'
Gull, 39, is captain compromise. The batting all-rounder - he bowls miserly off-spinners - gets on with everyone and will listen to everyone around him. He says he will rely a lot on the experienced heads of Rahul Sharma, a former captain, and Mark Eames, who began this season as a selector but then resigned after he found out he still had a lot to offer with the bat, and declared he was still available to play for Hong Kong.
'It will be a challenge, but I accept it and I know all the boys support me fully. They will back me up,' Gull said confidently. 'When I was named captain, I called every player personally and asked them to support me. The whole team pledged they would back me all the way.'
Half the battle seems to have been won already with Hong Kong needing to get past Uganda, Cayman Islands (tomorrow) and Tanzania (on Wednesday) to make it to the semi-finals in the eight-team tournament. The finalists in this event qualify for Division Two.
Apart from keeping their World Cup dreams alive, Hong Kong cricket will also gain in monetary terms with the International Cricket Council set to increase funding and support.
When Hong Kong qualified for Darwin - by entering the finals at the ACC Trophy last August in Kuala Lumpur (they lost to the United Arab Emirates) - it ensured annual funding of HK$3 million from the ICC and Asian Cricket Council would continue. While more money can be expected if Gull leads Hong Kong to a delightful end in Darwin, what is more important is Hong Kong would fall within the ICC's high-performance structure.
'It will open up more opportunities for Hong Kong as we will get increased coaching support for the players from the ICC. In money terms, too, we will benefit,' revealed HKCA secretary John Cribbin.
If ever there was a situation of entering uncharted waters, then this is one with Hong Kong not knowing what the opposition will be like in the preliminary round. But Sharma, who at 46 is the big daddy of the team, says this could work in their favour.
'Going in blind and not knowing what the opposition is like can be good for us. Sometimes, when we come up against teams with a reputation like UAE then that can play on our minds. In this case, we have no idea. The clock is set at zero and if we play well on the day, we can win,' Sharma said.
'But it is going to be hard. The standard is bound to be pretty consistent and not like playing in the ACC Trophy where one day you play Bhutan and the next you come up against the UAE.
'We have to play consistently and this is something we have been lacking, especially at this level. The slightest mental hesitation on our part could cost us big time,' added Sharma.
Sharma will be a key figure. After years of dedication and unflagging commitment, he is set to bring the curtain down on his career.
'I guess this is it. I have pretty much decided this will be my last big tournament. I'm finding it hard to devote time to cricket due to personal and work reasons. If you are going to play at this level, you need to commit more time,' said Sharma, the leading run-getter for Hong Kong at international level.
So when Sharma strides out today, Gull hopes he will deliver once again. 'His experience in batting is invaluable,' Gull said. 'He has a big role to play. At the same time, we cannot only rely on him. Everyone has to do their part.'
Uganda's recent history suggests they will be formidable opponents. They finished 10th at the 2001 ICC Trophy - a tournament in which Hong Kong failed to get past the opening round - while they also qualified for the 2005 ICC Trophy, something which Hong Kong failed to do. The ICC has ranked Uganda (two) higher than Hong Kong (four).
At the ICC Americas Championship last year, the Cayman Islands (ranked fifth) defeated fancied Canada by seven wickets, proving they are no mugs either, while Tanzania's (seventh) preparations for this tournament included a 20-day 10-match tour of India in March. They won five of these matches.
Gull and Hong Kong will not have it all their own way as they bid to battle through to the semi-finals and meet one of the two top teams from the other half of the draw - top seeds Papua New Guinea, Fiji (three), Italy (six) and Argentina (eight).
'It will be tough. But I'm confident knowing the whole team is behind me,' says Gull.