Sharma retires 14 years after losing his way in TST

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

This is it. Rahul Sharma, the rock around which Hong Kong's batting has swirled for the past 14 years, has finally surrendered to the tides of time. Soon after leading Hong Kong to a face-saving win over Tanzania in the ICC World Cricket League Division Three plate final in Darwin last Saturday, Sharma announced he was quitting the international arena.

'You have to go out when they say why, and not why not,' jokes Sharma. 'It is always tempting to hang around, but this is the right time to quit and the right time for the youngsters to take over.'

Hanging around has been one of the key fundamentals of Sharma's game. And we're not talking about his age - 47. Rather, his substantive style has made him one of the premier Hong Kong batsmen of all time.

The statistics say it all - from 1993 to 2007, Sharma played 110 matches for Hong Kong - from various International Cricket Council and Asian Cricket Council tournaments to Tuanku Ja'afar and other representative games during which he has scored more than 5,000 runs, including 21 hundreds at an average of over 50. It has taken a tough mental attitude, a steely determination and a strong will to succeed - attributes which Sharma feels most of Hong Kong's batsmen sadly lack, although he backs Hussain Butt, Irfan Ahmed and Courtney Kruger to come through.

'The most important thing about batting is staying at the wicket. How can you score runs when you are sitting in the pavilion?' asks Sharma.

His persona resembles the schoolyard bully who hogs the bat. It is this craving to bat which has set him apart from the rest. It is this hunger that has turned him into a man for all seasons, and a big-game player who revels when the heat is on.

'A key aspect of my game was I always considered myself to be mentally strong. You need to be technically adept, but technique can only get you so far. The rest is all about having the mind to stick around,' says Sharma.

The failure to stick around was the downfall of two of the batsmen he picked as his natural successors - Butt and Ahmed.

'Butt was found wanting in Darwin, but I believe he has the talent to come good. He lacks consistency right now, but he is a match-winner. Irfan is one of the most talented young cricketers around. He has a great eye and I enjoyed batting with him. His biggest problem is his youthful exuberance. Another young guy who has to be nurtured is Courtney Kruger.'

Sharma didn't quite get the fairytale ending he wanted in Darwin, falling short of making another ton by 15 runs. But his top-score of 85 against Tanzania was enough to propel Hong Kong to a competitive score, and the bowlers did the rest. It showed that when he scores, Hong Kong win.

Unfortunately for Hong Kong, Sharma was unable to devote time to the training camp in Chennai before Darwin due to his commitments as a partner in a recruitment business. He had also played little cricket this season. He took his time to find his feet in Darwin, and failed in the matches against Uganda and the Cayman Islands. These defeats put paid to hopes of progressing into the Cup competition.

'I landed in Darwin one day before the tournament began and this lack of preparation showed. I was found out in the first two games and my feet started moving only by the third game. If I had been playing more regularly, I would not have failed.'

For the first time in his long career, Sharma was dismissed first ball - against the Caymans. That dismissal just made him more determined in the remaining matches.

They say form is temporary and class is permanent. And Sharma's class shone in the last couple of games. He finished the tournament by winning the man-of-the-match award against Tanzania.

It was a twist of fate that led to Sharma's long love affair with Hong Kong cricket. Out shopping for clothes after he arrived in 1993, he got lost in Tsim Sha Tsui and ended walking up Cox's Road in Jordan.

'I was trying to figure out where I was when I heard someone yell 'howzat'. I then heard the sound of bat on ball. I had stumbled on Kowloon Cricket Club [KCC], which was soon to become my second home,' Sharma related.

'I went into the club and out through the back to the ground and the first person I met was [KCC stalwart] Shiroy Vaccha. He asked if I could play cricket and asked me to join the rest of the guys. I then met [former Hong Kong international] Steve Atkinson and with clothes borrowed from him and Shiroy, I had a knock around.'

Hong Kong was to benefit from that chance encounter. Sharma, who subsequently revealed that he had played Ranji Trophy cricket in India, for Delhi, was quickly drafted in to play for KCC Templars and it was not long before he became a regular with the city's representative team.

'Cricket was the last thing on my mind when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1993. I came to join my wife who was working for Cathay Pacific and I was looking for a job,' said Sharma, who was 33 when he arrived, and thought his playing days were over.

'Hong Kong has given me the best moments of my career - playing in the two ICC one-day internationals at the Asia Cup in 2004. There are many talented cricketers in the world who never get to play ODIs in their life. I not only played two, but also captained Hong Kong in both.

'It was a very proud moment when I walked out for the toss with [Pakistan captain] Inzamam-ul-Haq and [Bangladesh's] Habibul Bashar. I remember Shoaib Akhtar telling the Hong Kong guys, 'Don't let anyone take this moment away from you'. I was able to enjoy this moment simply because I was here in Hong Kong and I'm very grateful for that.'

Sharma has also given much. His most significant contribution being last year at the ACC Trophy in Kuala Lumpur when he played a huge part in Hong Kong qualifying for the 2008 Asia Cup, a result which also secured local cricket's financial future with the ICC and the ACC.

'But I can't find the time to fully devote myself to all the preparation that is needed to play international cricket for Hong Kong. It is not fair on the rest of the team.'

A growing commitment to his five-year-old daughter Inara - a precocious golfer - and wife Scveitta was also a major reason for Sharma deciding to step down from the international stage. 'I want to spend more time with my family. My daughter has a natural ability for golf and I hope to vicariously continue my sporting life through her,' says Sharma.

'There won't be a Sharma sequel. I want to give all my support and time to my daughter. But I will be around and hopefully will be able to give back something to Hong Kong, maybe as a batting coach.'