Mind control key to success for Hong Kong cricket team
The Hong Kong cricket team already have the talent; what they need now is a skilled psychologist rather than a batting coach
One of the first tasks coach Charlie Burke and the Hong Kong Cricket Association face over the next few weeks is to pick the next batting coach. But it is not batting per se that has been the problem for Hong Kong, more the players' mindset that we saw so clearly once again at the Asian Cricket Council Twenty20 Cup in Kathmandu. Having started with four solid victories, Hong Kong came undone against Afghanistan, being dismissed for a meagre 109. It seems there is a mental block when it comes to facing Asia's top associate side. It was just like at rugby sevens, where the national team seemed to take the psychological low-ground whenever they came up against Japan. Thankfully, they got that monkey off their back when crowned Asian champions last season.
Cricket must find a way to follow suit. And a lot rests on the mental fortitude of the batsmen. The experts will say batting is all about the mind. Cerebral composure is more than half the battle won when you are out at the crease. Sachin Tendulkar is the highest run-getter in test cricket and one-day internationals, not simply because of his strokeplay but because of his hunger to score. That starts with some chemical reaction in the cortex of his brain.
But sadly, when Hong Kong face the likes of Afghanistan, they seem to be beaten before a ball is bowled. This also happens when take on countries in the upper echelons of ICC associate membership. And it will be the likes of Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Canada that Hong Kong will be facing in October at the world qualifying competition for the ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh next year.
Our batsmen took a big step in the early stages of the Asian qualifiers when posting huge totals against the likes of Maldives and Malaysia. Openers Waqas Barkat and Irfan Ahmed ended the 10-team tournament as the top run-getters and top of the batting averages.
Barkat accumulated 280 runs at an average of 56 and also became the first Hong Kong batsman to score a century in an international T20. Irfan aggregated 223 runs at 37.16. If he can curb his need to hit the leather off every ball and use better shot selection, he can become one of the most dangerous batsmen at associate level. We have the talent. What we need now is the mental technique. The new batting coach - early reports suggest former Australian test batsman Damian Martyn is a contender - will have to focus on this aspect and not on how to physically play the game.
Hong Kong are on the cusp of making history. Jamie Atkinson and his men - some are just boys such as 16-year-old left-arm spinner Karan Shah - have a good chance of clinching a berth in Bangladesh. This is because six tickets are available. The last time the World Twenty20 was held in Colombo in 2012, only two spots were available for the associate countries. This was the ICC hitting back at the lower rung for their temerity in challenging moves to cut numbers in the longer 50-overs version. But now everything is back on track and next year's tournament will feature 16 countries, the 10 test-playing nations and six associates who qualify in October in the United Arab Emirates.
There will be 16 countries fighting for berths - Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, Afghanistan, Canada, Namibia (the top six ranked nations among the associates), UAE (host nation), and qualifiers Papua New Guinea, United States, Bermuda, Kenya, Uganda, Hong Kong, Nepal and two more to be decided from Europe.
Burke says the batting has improved and the bowling has got tighter and deadlier, especially with the presence of Tanvir Afzal. His assessment was made before the last two games against Afghanistan in the semi-final and UAE in the third-place play-off where Hong Kong first failed to set a decent score and then failed to chase down 160-odd. Yet the job was done. We have qualified. What remains to be done is to hone our batting and bowling departments, and that will require the help of a psychologist rather than a coach.
By October, Hong Kong will be further strengthened with exciting batting prospect Haseeb Amjad becoming eligible under the ICC's four-year residency rule, while precocious New Zealand-based left-hander Mark Chapman will also be available. If veteran Munir Dar is added to this mix, we will have a strong line-up. But at the end of the day, reputations don't matter, what counts is performance and runs in this shortest of versions. It is time to start thinking positively and believing in ourselves. That is half the battle won.