Hong Kong's history-making cricketers seek Chinese fans
Team qualify for 2014 World Twenty20 tournament, but disappointed in lack of recognition
Hong Kong’s cricketers made history by qualifying for next year’s World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, but when the news reached the city’s Chinese population, it was greeted with a collective shrug.
The former British colony placed sixth out of 16 teams at recent qualifiers in the UAE, ensuring the city will be represented at a major international cricket tournament for the first time.
It’s a major leap forward for a territory that has been playing international cricket since 1866. But all-rounder Roy Lamsam, the squad’s only current player of Chinese origin, says reaction in Hong Kong has been muted.
“Obviously, Hong Kong’s made history. But I don’t think we got the recognition that we deserved. I don’t know whether Hong Kongers are really happy or overjoyed at that,” he said.
The 33-year-old, who made his debut for the side in 1996 after making his way up through an all-Chinese school team, said the sport still struggles to make headway in a city where field space is hard to come by and football and basketball are far more popular.
Cricket was brought to Hong Kong when the British colonised the island in 1841. Once played in predominantly white clubs, it grew to depend on short-term, mainly Western expatriates passing through on work contracts.
That situation has changed over the past decade with the requirements that nearly all players be permanent residents or nationals, ending the cyclical nature of the squad and placing the team on firmer ground.
“We’ve reached a stage where people can’t pretend we’re not there. They have to take us seriously,” said chairman Mike Walsh, who oversaw the team’s transition from amateur to professional in April this year.
Today, the wealthy, semi-autonomous southern Chinese city of 7 million receives generous government and ICC funding that pays for top-class facilities including ball-tracking technology Hawk Eye, outreach programmes into 50 schools and weekend leagues involving roughly 500 players.
However, it remains hard for cricket to gain traction in the Chinese community, Hong Kong’s dominant ethnic group.
‘Hong Kong is going to go big’
Samson Lam, a 33-year-old league cricketer who took up the sport three years ago and now plays in an all-Chinese team, blames a lack of local media interest but hopes Hong Kong’s recent success can change that.
“Cricket is the best sport of Hong Kong and being able to make a World Cup final is something unique,” said Lam.
“Hopefully (qualifying) would attract more Chinese. The problem from what I see is there isn’t enough coverage.
“Two days after Hong Kong qualified, we started seeing some news in local newspapers - two or three sentences max. It’s not enough to get local people to understand it.”
The team is led by Jamie Atkinson, a former Durham University player who finished the qualifier tournament in UAE with 241 runs at a strong average of 30.12, while slow left-armer Munir Dar’s 17 wickets at 13.05 apiece placed him second on the leading bowlers’ list.
Rather than Chinese players, the squad is made up mainly of South Asians like 23-year-old vice-captain Waqas Barkat, a hard-hitting middle order batsman.
Barkat, the son of Pakistani immigrants who is fluent in Cantonese, is optimistic about the team’s trajectory given the relative youth of its core players.
“In the coming four to five years Hong Kong is going to go big. Our age average is 22 or 23. In the next five years guys are going to be very senior and will have more experience playing this group,” he says.
Atkinson, a qualified teacher whose father also played for Hong Kong, says the side has taken great strides, especially since the advent of professional contracts.
But if the team is to develop further, Walsh says Chinese involvement is crucial. He adds that the eventual aim is to help the sport grow across the border in mainland China.
“We have quite a few youngsters coming through. We have 100 per cent Chinese teams playing in the leagues,” says Walsh.
“Our avowed aim is to grow the game and we say part of our onus is to grow it that way - by that way I mean north over those hills into China,” he adds, gesturing beyond the verdant ground of the city’s historic Hong Kong Cricket Club.
This currently looks like a distant prospect, and with Lamsam aiming for retirement next year, there are no other Chinese players on the verge of selection.
But he hopes the team’s recent success can elevate its profile.
“It’s difficult, but there is still hope,” says the part-time interior designer.
“You cannot deny the fact we’ve accomplished something that no one has done before. Despite not being very popular at the moment it’s there for people to understand to enjoy, get their curiosity satisfied.
“Qualifying for the World Cup can only be a positive thing.”