Losers all around in row over money
Every story has a villain, a bad guy everyone loves to hate. But in the tragic drama that unfolded in cricketing circles this week, there was no villain, only losers on all sides. It is a tragedy that Irfan Ahmed, one of the finest young cricketers Hong Kong has unearthed for quite some time, should find himself out of the team to play in the Karp Group Hong Kong Sixes at the end of this month.
It is tragic that the people running the show, the Hong Kong Cricket Association, had their hands forced to drop Irfan, who two years ago took the Sixes by storm when he almost led Hong Kong to their first Cup title. He was named player of the tournament that year. In the past three years the all-rounder with a bludgeon for a bat has been Hong Kong's best performer. We need players like Irfan, 21, in the team. And that is what Irfan perhaps gambled on as he failed to turn up for practices with the Hong Kong squad in the run-up to the team being named for the annual showpiece at the Kowloon Cricket Club. He made the cardinal error of thinking he was indispensable. No one is, especially in a team sport.
A few months ago, Hong Kong finished fourth in the ICC World Cricket League Division Two in Dubai by the skin of their teeth. It was enough to make us a high-performance country in the eyes of the International Cricket Council and, by dint, the association received US$350,000, an annual grant solely to be spent on the senior squad. How this money is spent is up to the HKCA. It felt the best way was to send its cricketers abroad for training, or on overseas tours. And appoint a batting coach, with former New Zealand test cricketer Lou Vincent earmarked for the job. In some quarters, especially among the players, there was, and still remains, a feeling that perhaps they should be given contracts like in any of the 10 test-playing nations, or even in bigger associate member nations like Ireland and Scotland.
But for a small associate body like Hong Kong, is this practical? Irfan thought so. He said the reason why he couldn't turn up for training was because of work commitments. 'We have to find our own way as we get nothing from Hong Kong cricket,' he said.
It is a tough life. Irfan is not some smooth-talking lawyer or well-heeled investment banker. He and his brothers do hard labour, working as building contractors. 'We put up scaffolding and do things like that,' he said when pressed for an answer on what line of work he was in. Taking time off work translates into taking dollars out of his pocket. This is a story quite common among the South Asian community involved in sports, be it cricket or hockey.
Irfan believes he is owed a small share of the US$350,000 that has come into the coffers of the HKCA. After all, he was part of the team who played in Dubai. But it is a different matter when you are on the other side of the table. Hong Kong cricket is not a big and powerful body. Every cent it receives is treasured. Although officials acknowledge it would be nice to reward the players with contracts; the reality is they cannot. What happens when the ICC funds dry up? Shouldn't it be used for the larger community rather than on individual players?
The funds allow the HKCA to smooth the way for the players. In the past, players had to dip into their own pockets when on tour as far as meals were concerned. Now the HKCA can give them a daily allowance. So there is some improvement. Unfortunately, there isn't enough to dish out contracts. As coach Charlie Burke said: 'Players need to treasure playing for Hong Kong'. Apparently, Irfan didn't treasure it enough, and hoped by staying away from practices, he could make his point. It didn't work and he has paid the price. That's a real shame, for he is a match-winner on his day- and he has proved it at the past three Hong Kong Sixes.
Yet, discipline has to be maintained. You cannot have one set of rules for Irfan, and another for the rest. So to his chagrin, Irfan will find himself outside the boundary when the October 28-30 tournament is played. By axing him, the HKCA has sent out a message loud and clear - no one is indispensable. But at the end of the day, everyone is a loser. Let's hope this episode will clear the air and everyone pulls in one direction from now on, especially with Hong Kong facing a critical period with qualifying tournaments for the ICC World Twenty20 next summer in Sri Lanka, as well as the 2015 World Cup coming up.
We might make do without Irfan at the Sixes, but we most definitely need him when Hong Kong embark on these qualifiers. And in the meantime, the HKCA must try to address the vexed issue of paying the senior players a small allowance. The old excuse of not having money won't hold water anymore. Find the money, then everyone will be happy. And a happy team are a successful one.