Calling time on a good innings
Danny Lai wants to get on the golf course, lower his handicap to single digits and not have to worry about his job or irksome questions from the chairman of the Hong Kong Cricket Association. The man behind the bamboo curtain, or more appropriately sightscreen, is about to quit his job.
'I just want to play golf with the chairman [Dinesh Tandon] and not have to talk about cricket. I just want a break,' says Lai, who has announced he intends to step down as general manager.
The HKCA is now looking for a replacement - a team player with a strong financial background, someone who can work with the government and run the Hong Kong Sixes, and most importantly be a multi-lingual (English, Cantonese, Mandarin), self-driven and motivated person.
Asking for the moon? No, what the HKCA wants is another Danny Lai.
'We will miss him badly. There is no doubt about that,' said HKCA president Shahzada Saleem. 'Danny wanted to leave a few months ago, before the Hong Kong Sixes, but I convinced him to stay. It is sad that he still wants to go as he has been very valuable to us.'
Lai, 52, has been the force behind the resurgence of local cricket. Returning for a second stint as head of the sport's administration in 2009 - he first joined in 2002 before taking a break in 2006 - he has been at the helm of a push which has seen the game make tremendous strides locally and extend its boundaries in China.
'We have been very successful on many fronts in recent years. We have evolved and become a more professional body, semi-professional at least, and I take great pride in all these achievements,' Lai said.
Hong Kong cricket was in the international limelight last June when it hosted the International Cricket Council's annual conference.
All the movers and shakers were in town, and the HKCA made the most of the opportunity, feting top government officials including Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.
The move paid off as ICC president Sharad Pawar asked Tsang and the Hong Kong government to give more support for local cricket. And later that evening, at the official dinner, Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing promised the HKCA a 'home for cricket' - a venue which by all accounts will be ready within the next five years.
'We couldn't have done it without the ICC, but the fact all the big people from the world governing body were in Hong Kong was due to the hard work we had put in previously when we hosted the World Cricket League Division Three tournament,' Lai said. 'We proved that as a body we were efficient and had the skills to manage a major conference.
'We helped raise the profile of Hong Kong on the international map and it has benefited us with the government now promising us a new home for cricket.'
Lai's impending departure was greeted with dismay by Mike Walsh, who 10 years ago picked Lai from among a crop of candidates to head the game's administration.
'That was the best thing I have ever done, picking Danny,' said the former HKCA chairman. 'We had about 80 people applying for the job but in my view Danny was the outstanding candidate because he had a legal and sports administration background and was very personable.'
After more than 100 years of the game being run by 'energetic and enthusiastic white men', the HKCA decided it needed an Asian or Chinese face to run the show.
'He was the perfect choice and he soon opened doors within the government as well as the Asian Cricket Council. I soon realised it was the best decision I had made,' said Walsh, and coming from a dedicated umpire that is high praise indeed.
The regional governing body, the ACC, and Lai get on like a house on fire, which has helped in dragging China onto the world cricket scene. Lai and the HKCA have made the mainland easily accessible to the ACC as well as the ICC.
'We have been at the forefront and been involved since the inception,' Lai said. 'It was the HKCA which proposed that China become an ACC member, which led to the mainland becoming part of the ICC in 2005. I have a very cordial relationship with mainland officials.'
He helped translate the laws of the game into Putonghua and also played a huge role in Guangzhou hosting Twenty20 cricket as a medal sport at the 2010 Asian Games. Today, the stadium built for the Games is being considered as a venue for international cricket by the HKCA.
But few people knew that without Lai's intervention the tournament might have left Chinese officials with red faces.
'They had hired a guy nine months before the Asian Games but he didn't have any equipment or staff to work with. The Games officials thought that since the stadium was built, everything was okay. I had to convince them that the pitch was the heart of a stadium and a lot of work had to be done to prepare it. Thankfully, with just three months to go, they listened to me. I think they listened to me when I said it would be a huge loss of face if the ground was poorly prepared,' Lai said.
On the local front, the game has reached new heights. The Hong Kong men's team are ranked 20th in the world, the highest ranking ever achieved by a local team sport. While the players and the coaching staff must take a lot of the credit, Lai has played a part in making it easier for the players to represent Hong Kong.
'In the past, a player had to pay his own airfare as well as for food when they went on tour. Today we take care of all this thanks to increased funding from the government [Leisure and Cultural Services Department] as well as the ICC and ACC,' Lai said. 'My only regret is that while the game is involving more local Chinese kids at grass-roots level, we haven't still seen any benefits at the high-performance end. But this is happening in the women's game and I believe over time, the men's game, too, will see more Chinese players.'
Increased funding from the M-Mark and the Mega Events Fund - a result of hard lobbying from Lai - has resulted in the Hong Kong Sixes expanding last year to 12 teams and to three days. It was bigger and better, but Lai concedes a lot of work still lies ahead.
'Hong Kong is now at the crossroads and there is more to do,' he said. But he will not be around, unless the HKCA can bend his arm.
'After last year's Hong Kong Sixes, the top officials of the HKCA were so mentally drained we deliberately didn't talk to each other for a month at least. It took a lot out of us,' smiled Lai. A couple of months down the road it looks like he wants a permanent break.
'His departure will be a big blow,' says Saleem. 'Hopefully, I can persuade him to stay on for a bit longer.'
Years that that the Hong Kong Cricket Association has been in existence