Playing for high stakes
Hong Kong have taken part in many international tournaments in the past, but the ICC World Cricket League Division Two competition in Dubai will be their biggest date with destiny. This six-team tournament starting on Friday will ensure Hong Kong cricket a secure financial footing for the next couple of years - providing they finish in the top four.
A top-four placing after the round-robin competition against Bermuda, Uganda, Namibia, Papua New Guinea and hosts the United Arab Emirates will ensure Hong Kong is classified as a high-performance country by the International Cricket Council.
This will mean more money, more cricket and more specialised coaching for the senior team. That's just for starters. For a top-two finish -being in the final on April 15- will guarantee the funding is bigger, as well as a place with the big boys in the associate world such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Canada, who all played in last month's World Cup.
'The stakes are high and we know how important this tournament is. There is pressure, but we are all looking forward to doing well,' captain Najeeb Amar said.
At 39, all-rounder Najeeb is the daddy of a side bristling with young talent. He will lead a 14-strong squad showing only one change from the side who won the ICC World Cricket League Division Three tournament in Hong Kong in January. The new face is schoolboy Max Tucker, who comes in for Tabarak Dar.
'We have done a lot of work since winning the division three tournament. The boys are super-fit and are all looking forward to taking Hong Kong into the ICC's high-performance category,' left-arm spinner Najeeb said.
Winning the division three tournament has sparked a surge in interest, enabling the Hong Kong Cricket Association to set up national squads at various age groups - under-13, under-15 and under-17 boys, as well as an under-17 girls squad.
'There are more kids interested in playing cricket following our win at home,' Najeeb said. 'If we do well in Dubai, it will just keep the momentum going and we know there will be more funds for the game.'
A fairy-tale comeback after losing the opening two games against the United States and Oman saw Hong Kong win the division three event, defeating Papua New Guinea by four wickets in the final of the six-team competition.
Head coach Charlie Burke has not made any significant changes to the winning formula, although there could be one change to the batting order with wicketkeeper-batsman Waqas Barkat being looked at as an opener.
The tried and tested combination of Courtney Kruger and Roy Lamsam failed to deliver, and even when they got going, runs came at a trickle.
None of the top three -Lamsam, Kruger or number three Hussain Butt- had a strike rate higher than 65.73, although they all aggregated over 100 runs. Butt finished with the most (211 runs from six innings), Lamsam was next with 183 and Kruger totalled 100.
While happy that Hong Kong are achieving bigger totals -they passed 250 twice batting first, and successfully chased down targets of more than 200 on a couple of occasions- there is a worry the runs come too slowly.
'Our strength has always been our bowling, but after the division three tournament, our batting also improved. The one thing we will have to improve on is our fielding. The grounds in Dubai will be big,' Najeeb said.
While youngsters like Nizakat Khan, Mark Chapman and Barkat stepped up to the crease, the biggest disappointment in the batting department in January was the performance of Irfan Ahmed.
The talented all-rounder scored only 67 runs from six innings with a highest total of 25. Known for his clean and big-hitting at the Hong Kong Sixes, Irfan was the leading wicket-taker with 11 wickets, but his poor form with the bat was a concern.
Hong Kong will hope Irfan will rediscover his touch in Dubai as he is one player who can score quickly and is capable of taking the game away from the opposition almost single-handedly.
'The good thing about our batting line-up is we bat deep,' Burke said. 'We have guys who can occupy the crease as well as guys who can come out and score quickly during the batting power play or at the end of the innings.'
In the bowling department, a good mix of left-arm spinners (Najeeb, Munir Dar, Nadeem Ahmed) and medium-pacers (Irfan, Tucker, Adil Mehmood, Aizaz Khan) will give Hong Kong a lot of bite.
'It is an exciting time and I can't wait to see where we are at,' Burke said. 'Everyone knows a lot is riding on the outcome of this tournament and they all know we will have to play a lot better than we did in the division three tournament if we are to achieve anything.'
The HKCA has upped the ante by promising the players HK$300,000 if they finish in the top two (HK$150,000 if they make it into the top four) and this will be a huge motivating factor.
'We have played against Uganda, the United Arab Emirates and Papua New Guinea in recent times and done well. Bermuda and Namibia are a bit of an unknown quantity, but we are not worried,' Najeeb said. 'This is a huge tournament and we know if we do well, there will be a lot more top-quality cricket ahead of us. This is what we want and we will be going all out to achieve this goal.'
April 8, Hong Kong v Uganda; April 9, Hong Kong v Bermuda; April 11, Hong Kong v United Arab Emirates; April 12, Hong Kong v Papua New Guinea; April 14, Hong Kong v Namibia; April 15, Final and play-offs.