Howzat for a comeback
Perhaps the best way to describe Hong Kong's women cricketers, who returned from Kuwait last weekend with the Asian Cricket Council Twenty20 silverware packed in their carry-on baggage, is: 'You've come a long way, baby.'
Borrowing the slogan a cigarette company once used to target young professional women into taking up the harmful weed encapsulates the feat of the Hong Kong women, who lifted themselves from the despair of their Asian Games failure to retain bragging rights as the best associate team in the region.
'The Asian Games was a disaster and we lost a lot of confidence after Guangzhou,' skipper Neisha Pratt said. 'But we have bounced back and winning this title is a huge boost.'
A three-wicket victory over China - who had beaten Hong Kong in the first pool game - blew away the dark clouds and uncertainty hovering over the women's squad after the Asian Games nightmare last November.
Hong Kong had gone to Guangzhou as realistic medal hopefuls, but those dreams were shattered as a young team was blown away by Bangladesh in the first match. Hong Kong were dismissed for 25, their lowest score in an international Twenty20 fixture, before losing to Nepal by seven wickets.
There was plenty of soul-searching. Even though cricket has been included at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, there were doubts whether the women would get the opportunity again. That would depend on the Hong Kong Olympic Committee's approval.
Last weekend's win over China in Kuwait will give weight to their case for participation, as not only have Hong Kong retained their ACC Twenty20 title, but they have also earned the right to play at the Asia Cup later this year.
'The thing about winning is you get the chance to play more and more cricket and this is the best way to improve your game,' says Charlie Burke, Hong Kong head coach.
'This win will see us, and China, qualify for the Asia Cup against test-playing nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This will be the first time we will have this opportunity and it will be a huge step up, one which will benefit us,' Burke said.
The best thing about the Kuwait campaign was that Hong Kong fielded a number of new players who stood up and were counted, including new wicketkeeper Natural Yip Sze-wan, who hit the first six of her life in the final in the 108-run chase against China. 'It was a 72-yard boundary and the ball went sailing over the ropes,' said Lal Jayasinghe, standing in as coach for Burke, who had other assignments at home. 'It is more remarkable when you think that Natural had been playing cricket for just a year and she had only taken up wicket-keeping three months ago. That six turned the game around for us.'
The absence of regulars like Godiva Li, Yasmin Daswani, Ishitaa Gidwani and Manpreet Kaur, all unavailable due to work commitments or studies, left holes in the squad.
'There were fears among some circles the team might not be able to do so well but this young group of girls were outstanding and this performance is good for the long-term picture too,' Burke said.
One of the youngsters who excelled was teenager Mariko Hill. Promoted in the batting order to number four and given the new ball, Hill turned in solid displays, proving she will be a linchpin of the team in the future.
'Mariko was outstanding. She was given the new ball from the second game and she bowled brilliantly,' Jayasinghe said. 'Another girl to impress was off-spinner Betty Chan who showed a lot of maturity.'
The coming of age of Hill and Chan ensured Hong Kong's bowling was lethal, a feature which Burke said turned the fortunes around after losing the opening game to China by 13 runs.
'Our bowling got better and better as the tournament went on and this was the difference. In our opening match against China, we didn't play well while at the same time our opponents did superbly. But then we picked it up,' Burke said.
Pratt agreed. 'We played poorly in our opener. But we have always started slowly, perhaps the transition to grass wickets and new conditions being the cause. But I always knew we could bounce back.'
The combination of Pratt, Keenu Gill and Connie Wong Ar-yan gave Hong Kong a solid presence at the top of the order and the trio laid the foundation for wins in the remaining pool games, and in the semi-final against Nepal, watched by hundreds of screaming Nepalese fans.
'There was more pressure in that match than in the final. But I guess one good thing we learned from the Asian Games was getting used to playing in front of big crowds with nearly 10,000 fans at one match. So it didn't bother us,' Pratt said.
Not only did Hong Kong have to put up with the Nepalese fans, but former British prime minister John Major was on hand to watch both the semi-finals and the final. 'He was complimentary and very appreciative,' Pratt said.
The women's success added the icing on a rather big cake for the local game with the Hong Kong Cricket Association last night feting all the teams - men's, women's and under-19s - in a celebratory dinner at the Pakistan Club.
'In the last month or so, Hong Kong teams have won 13 out of 18 matches, including two finals. This is a huge achievement,' Burke said.
The men's team won the ICC World Cricket League Division Three final - gaining promotion to Division Two where a top-four finish will enable them to be earmarked by the ICC as a high-performance country - the women won in Kuwait and the under-19 squad reached the semi-finals at the ACC Trophy, qualifying for the Asia Cup later this year. But Burke is not resting on any laurels.
'There is a long way to go and plenty to do still, especially for the women,' Burke said. 'We need to grow the women's domestic competition and make sure the national side don't have to rely on three or four players as they do now. But things are looking up.'