Silent Assassin

Don't let bowler Tanwir Afzal's reserved manner fool you - he's one of Hong Kong's key weapons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 9:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2014, 10:27pm

He is the quiet one in the squad. While others are the soul of the party, Tanwir Afzal prefers to take a back seat, and let the sometimes raucous nature of a touring squad ebb and flow around him - that is until it is showtime.

Tanwir is the man Hong Kong look to when it comes to opening the bowling attack, or when in need of some quick runs. He is the go-to player at the start of an innings when fielding, or whenever the situation demands a Hong Kong Sixes approach.

The former Pakistan under-19 right-arm fast bowler is enjoying his role and believes Hong Kong can raise a few eyebrows when the ICC World Twenty20 gets under way today with the first of three group games against Nepal at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in the heart of this bustling port city of four million.

Hard work has brought us here and I believe we have the side capable of qualifying for the final round
Tanwir Afzal

"Hard work has brought us here and I believe we have the side capable of qualifying for the final round," says Tanwir. "I feel we can reach any World Cup if we set our minds on it. We came so close in New Zealand, and now we are here, just one step away from the Super 10 stage and we can do it."

It is perhaps no coincidence Hong Kong's recent surge up the associate member rankings has come with his eligibility to play for his adopted home under the ICC's four-year residency rule. For this, Hong Kong have to thank Pakistan Association and a chance meeting with Tanwir five years ago in Kuala Lumpur. "In 2006 I played for Pakistan under-19 against India in a series of matches. I opened the bowling and did quite well. But soon after, I got the opportunity to go to Malaysia and I grabbed it. I don't know what would have happened if I had stayed at home, whether I would have had the chance to play for Pakistan.

"But when I got the offer to play in Malaysia, I took it and it was while I was there that I met some players from Hong Kong who asked me if I wanted to come and play cricket for Pakistan Association club as well as coach them. I took the chance," said Tanwir.

He arrived in 2008 and was soon making his mark. It was inevitable that he - and another Pakistan under-19 player Haseeb Amjad (who played the year after Tanwir) - be picked for Hong Kong as soon as they met the four-year eligibility requirement.

With bat or ball, Tanwir is an invaluable asset. Hong Kong bowling coach Simon Cook says the Punjab-born speedster will play a crucial role as Hong Kong attempt to beat Nepal tonight, Afghanistan (on Tuesday) and Bangladesh (Thursday) and qualify, as group winners, for the Super 10 stage.

"Tanwir sets the tone of the match. He generally takes the new ball and over the last two tournaments he has really set the benchmark high," says Cook. "It is evident that when he is not playing in the side we haven't had that benchmark first up and it permeates down through the rest of the innings

"He plays a massive role for us with that control in the first six overs and obviously his hitting ability down in the lower middle order. He is key to us. He has won several games with the bat."

Tanwir showed a glimpse of his match-winning potential when, together with Mark Chapman, he blasted Hong Kong to a historic first win over a test-playing nation, defeating Zimbabwe in a warm-up game on Wednesday. The pair put on an unbroken 70-run stand, with Tanwir contributing 37 off just 21 balls, as Hong Kong edged to a thrilling four-wicket victory off the last ball.

Before arriving in Bangladesh, Tanwir was at the centre of it all when Hong Kong defeated top associate country Ireland for the first time in another warm-up match in Dubai. His opening spell of three for eight off four overs was praised as first-class by Cook, a former English county player.

"That was a fantastic spell. We played on a wicket which was slightly sticky with not much grass on it [like the tracks in Bangladesh] and it was perfect for him. He went right in and executed his skills well bowling a lot of slower balls, cutters, holding the ball differently and it worked," said Cook.

"Tanwir starved the batsmen of runs and he did it perfectly, not only against Ireland but also during our World Cup [50 overs] qualifiers in New Zealand. Against Canada he only went for 18 runs in 10 overs. He has got those spells in him and when he is bowling like that it is a joy to watch."

Disappointed that Hong Kong fell short of qualifying for the 2015 World Cup - Scotland pipped them for the last spot - Tanwir is now focused on Hong Kong making it through to the big boys in Bangladesh. "The difference between 50 and 20 overs is mental strength. In 50 overs you have time to recover from a bad over; here you have to be strong because you don't have that time. As a bowler you've only got 24 balls, and one bad over can cost you dearly. Fitness is key, as it helps you to be mentally strong too," Tanwir said.

Tanwir and Haseeb have forged a strong combination bowling in tandem, and often the latter is the beneficiary of Tanwir's miserly spells. "The headlines might go to Haseeb for taking wickets, but often that is due to the pressure Tanwir has built at the other end by bowling economically. I expect them to do the same in this competition where at some stage they will bowl in tandem," Cook said.

Cook believes Hong Kong's fate will lie in the hands of the two opening bowlers.

"These wickets are not going to help fast bowlers but what they can do is find a way of going for one run or for no runs off a delivery and build pressure and let pressure get wickets. You are not going to be hitting middle and hitting off or bowling those magic balls which you can do in New Zealand so we have to get wickets in a different way, by building pressure as a partnership and as a unit."

Hong Kong's bowling attack will primarily be centred around the faster bowlers. Tanwir, Haseeb, Irfan Ahmed and Aizaz Khan will give skipper Jamie Atkinson the luxury of choice. Then there are left-arm spinners Najeeb Amar and Nadeem Ahmed plus leggie Nizakat Khan.

Cook said: "Twenty20 is perceived as a batsman's game but bowling has a huge role. The fact that it is viewed as a batter's game actually works to our advantage. There is no pressure on a bowler in T20 for they are almost expected to go around the park. As a bowler you have nothing to lose, so you can be aggressive."

With Tanwir leading the attack, Hong Kong are all set to surprise.