Experience that can't be bought or beaten
There is nothing graceful or stylish about Munir Dar. An unorthodox front-on stance at the batting crease coupled with ugly swipes reminds one more of a butcher hefting a cleaver than a surgeon with a scalpel. His left-arm spin comes out awkwardly too; seemingly more desperate to get rid of the ball than to unfurl a web of deceit.
Yet, despite lacking any aesthetics, Dar proved to be the ace in the pack as he spearheaded Hong Kong's successful campaign at the Asian Cricket Council Twenty20 in Nepal last week. The oldest player among a brood of boys proved nothing could beat experience as he led both the batting and bowling averages to leave Hong Kong as runners-up to Afghanistan. That secured their berth in the final qualifiers for the ICC World Twenty20 in the United Arab Emirates next March.
Before leaving for Kathmandu, Hong Kong coach Charlie Burke made a prophetic statement about Dar. 'The oldest in the group, he is a match-winner at his best. His clever spin bowling with plenty of variation and his hard batting in the middle order will be much needed if Hong Kong are to qualify.'
The 37-year-old's substance-over-style approach gave Hong Kong an early boost after the opening game, last-ball loss to hosts Nepal when he smacked a half-century to lead the side to victory over Saudi Arabia, who were the minnows in the group. Still the win provided the fuel to stoke confidence through the camp.
That innings won Dar the first of three Man-of-the-Match awards in the 10-team tournament, the most by any player. His other two were against Kuwait and Oman in the semi-finals, prompting Hong Kong manager Travis Pittman to say: 'I might have to pull out the credit card to pay for all this excess [awards] baggage.'
There is no excess in Munir's game. He has a simple approach. The ball is there to hit, so smack it. And his bowling is all about trying to take wickets. While economy can be the name of the game in Twenty20 cricket, the Little Sai Wan all-rounder would rather see the back of the batsman than just contain him.
This approach earned him 11 wickets, one less than strike bowler Irfan Ahmed, but Munir finished top of the bowling averages and was also the most economical bowler for Hong Kong. And having scored 202 runs in the competition, including a tournament-high 11 sixes, it was no surprise that the organisers named him the Player of the Tournament. It was a huge turnaround for someone who had been about to retire just a few months ago.
'He was dropped from the national squad about five months ago, but he vowed to come back fitter and more committed. And he has proved that,' Burke said. 'After the game against Oman [where he scored an unbeaten 76], he was in tears. His desire to win is what makes him so valuable. The others can learn from that.'
Burke has successfully fashioned a young squad - in Nepal the average age was 21.8 years - over the past few months. What Munir showed was that experience matters too and, when mixed with the unbridled enthusiasm of youth, it could become a heady concoction.
And in 21-year-old Jamie Atkinson, Hong Kong have a young leader with a good head on his shoulders and who proved his worth by leading from the front, especially with bat in hand.
Hong Kong cricket can also celebrate the return to form of the Ahmed brothers - Irfan and Nadeem. Both showed renewed commitment with sterling performances. Irfan, who had been dropped for the Hong Kong Sixes on disciplinary grounds, came up trumps batting as an opener to finish as the second-highest run-getter next to Dar with an aggregate of 135. He also had the best strike rate (166.66) and was fearless as he thumped the bowlers.
If Irfan, 22, can improve his shot selection and bear in mind that an innings lasts slightly longer than at the Sixes, he can undoubtedly be a bigger thorn for opponents in the future.
Left-arm spinner and elder brother Nadeem has the talent to become one of the best bowlers Hong Kong has ever produced. His spell in the final against Afghanistan - two for eight in four overs - was superb. He was bowling against a high-calibre batting line-up and yet they had no option but to treat him with respect.
Pakistan legend Javed Miandad, watching him in action at last year's Asian Games in Guangzhou, remarked on Nadeem's talent, but also said he needed to work hard on his game. This has been lacking sometimes as Nadeem - who once took four wickets against Pakistan in the Asia Cup - has been temperamental. But in Nepal he showed glimpses of his potential and proved he could fill the role left by former skipper Najeeb Amar if he put his mind to it.
Others like Courtney Kruger, Babar Hayat, Nizakat Khan, Waqas Barkat and Aizaz Khan all chipped in, proving that Hong Kong are no longer a one-man band. It was this team effort which laid the foundation for a successful campaign.
Hong Kong, Oman and Nepal will now represent Asia in the 16-team UAE world qualifiers. They will join the six associate members with one-day international status - Afghanistan, Canada, Ireland, Kenya, the Netherlands and Scotland - who automatically qualified for this event.
The rest of the field will be made up of Namibia and Uganda (Africa), the United States and Bermuda (Americas), Papua New Guinea (East Asia and Pacific) and Denmark and Italy (Europe).
'We have achieved our goal in Nepal. Now we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the next three months,' said Burke as he looked forward to the world qualifiers.
It will be a totally different ball game with the calibre of opposition many levels higher than what Hong Kong faced in Nepal. It will be a challenge which Hong Kong's young guns will relish.
A lot of hard work lies in front as Burke said, and if Hong Kong can learn from their mistakes in Nepal, especially in the final where they panicked in a modest 126-run chase, there is a good chance Atkinson and company can upset a few big names come March as the hunt gets under way to find the two associate teams who will join the 10 full members in the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka next September.