Hong Kong's minority sports lack the backing they need to compete at the highest level, officials tell Lee Wing-sze IT WOULD HAVE been unfair to expect much of such a young team. Formed just four months earlier, the first Hong Kong women's cricket team mainly sought exposure on their overseas debut in Lahore, Pakistan, last month. Ranged against vastly more experienced squads at the one-day international qualifying tournament, it was hardly surprising that they failed to secure a place in the 2009 World Cup. But superior skills aside, what struck the Hong Kong cricketers most about their international rivals was the systematic support they received from their governments. It was an eye-opener for 14-year-old bowler Godiva Li Kai-ling, who played two matches in the series. 'Now I realise how strong other teams [such as Pakistan] are. I learned a lot from playing against them,' she says. 'They are so well prepared and trained almost every day for months before the event.' More focused programmes make a big difference, says the convenor of the Hong Kong Cricket Club women's team, Anita Miles Wu Mui-chu. 'Previously, Pakistan lost nearly all their ladies' matches, but one year ago they identified a squad of 20 young players and spent most of the past year training them, nearly full-time.' As it turned out, Hong Kong lost to Pakistan by massive margins. Even so, Miles says our cricketers enjoyed the Lahore experience and the two-year-old local league will gain from their experiences. 'Our best girls can equal the Pakistan women, but we need to improve the rest,' Miles says of the team comprising expatriates and local school recruits, of whom the youngest, Chan Sau-ha, is just 12. '[Pakistan] had spent many months of concentrated training in superb facilities at the Pakistan Cricket Academy. Unfortunately, due to time and space constraints, our training is not so focused,' Miles says. When the Sports Development Board was dismantled two years ago, the Hong Kong Sports Institute took on the duty of nurturing elite athletes in 13 focus sports - badminton, cycling, fencing, rowing, squash, swimming, table tennis, tennis, ten-pin bowling, athletics, triathlon, windsurfing and wushu. Hong Kong representatives in these sports receive comprehensive backing through the institute's elite programme, including sports psychology and physiotherapy. The government also covers 90 per cent of their costs at major competitions such as the Asian Games through the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong. All other sports have become the poorer cousins. And if those teams want to represent Hong Kong at international events they must apply for support from the Sports Funding Office under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. That's usually insufficient and many associations struggle to raise funds, though some groups such as the Hong Kong Cricket Club (which financed the women's team) are blessed with generous sponsors. The Hong Kong taekwondo squad annually participates in three international competitions and its members are sent on two intensive training sessions abroad. Although the government helps fund such tours, the amount is not enough to cover costs, says secretary-general of the Taekwondo Association, Susannah Lo Oi-ho. The association, which has 39 affiliates, picks up some of the tab and tries to secure sponsorship from supporters and companies, Lo says. The athletes also shoulder some of the costs themselves. Sports Federation vice-president Vivien Fung Lau Chiang-chu says the organisation is lobbying the government to allocate more resources for non-focus sports, and the HK$30 million allocated under the new budget to develop grass-roots activity will help. 'That's good news for the sport associations,' Fung says. In addition, HK$5million of the HK$40 million earmarked for elite sports will go towards coaching and training in some non-focus areas, she says. 'It's a big boost for sports which have attained high standards, but aren't designated as a focus sport,' she says. The taekwondo squad's mediocre results at the 2002 Asian Games in Pusan means the team will miss this year's event in Doha, much to Lo's regret. But the association's efforts to raise team standards are hampered by many constraints, Lo says. There has yet to be a full-time taekwondo athlete, she says. 'It takes a lot of resources to support full-time athletes,' Lo says. 'We need a full-time coach, as well as financial support for the athletes.' Sports development isn't just a matter of funds, but also policy, she says. As the association sees it, the major obstacle top taekwondo athletes face is the lack of a permanent training location. Most are forced to rotate between different public venues. 'This is a problem faced by many sports in Hong Kong. Unless every sport has an assigned long-term training area, progress will be slow,' she says. Softball, another developing sport in the city, secured some public funds to send its women's team for intensive training sessions on the mainland earlier this year. Although they weren't selected for the Doha games, the Hong Kong Softball Association (HKSA) cites such training support as a critical factor in the growth of the sport. 'The standard of the team has been boosted after the training series. Players can forget about their jobs and really focus on improving their game,' says HKSA secretary-general Albert Yan Sui-tong. At the Sports Federation, Fung hopes to secure sufficient funds to enable each association to hire a professional coach. 'If you have a good coach, the sport will develop much better,' she says. 'Associations only get extra funding to employ an international coach before big events such as the Asian Games and the Olympics. But the lack of continuity means the sport won't get the full benefit.' Good coaching is one of the key factors in strengthening a sport. 'The international coach isn't just responsible for training promising athletes. He or she also helps train local coaches, enhancing the accreditation of local trainers and improving the standard of the sport in general,' she says. Having had to cope with coaching units made up entirely of volunteers, Yan agrees. Several years ago, a big donation from a former player enabled the HKSA to employ an experienced mainland coach. 'He didn't just train the national players, he also shared his experience with local coaches,' Yan says. 'And his presence helped raise the public profile of softball.' Meanwhile, the impact of the women's cricket team's first international foray is already being felt in the six-team league season which kicked off last month. 'Although our girls have only played a couple of games since their return [from Lahore], you can already see a different, more professional attitude and far higher skill levels in batting, bowling and fielding,' Miles says. 'Apart from it being such a wonderful experience, the main benefit is that the girls now have a far better idea of the standards to aim for.' To consolidate those gains, the team now hopes to compete at the Women's Asia Cup in India in December. Given sufficient training opportunities over the next couple of years, Miles says the Hong Kong team could one day compete with the Pakistanis: there's no reason they can't become the next powerhouse in Asian women's cricket.