After 850 days without cricket and missing two T20 World Cups, Hong Kong meets India and Pakistan | Panda Anku

It’s been a tough few years for Hong Kong cricket on both sides of COVID-hit 2020, when even a simple outdoor training session was deemed impossible. The fact that the small cricket nation also missed two consecutive T20 World Cups (2021 and 2022) and were narrowly edged out in the qualifiers hurt further.

Head coach Trent Johnston and his men finally got some much-needed relief last Wednesday at Al Amerat, Muscat – a spot in the 2022 six-team Asia Cup. And, quite understandably, Johnston, an Irish legend and pioneer of the ‘chicken’. dance’, grooved to ‘ Kala Chashma,’ a hit Bollywood number, with his boys following the side’s momentous win over United Arab Emirates in the qualifying round. It had also recorded clinical victories against Singapore and Kuwait.

All Johnston wants now is for his team to enjoy their time on the field because “they may never get the chance to play India and Pakistan in a tournament like this again.”

Remarkably, Hong Kong came really close to beating India at the last edition in 2018 before losing by just 26 runs in their last ODI appearance.

Nizakat Khan, who then opened batting for Hong Kong, scored 92 from 115. Now leader of the unit, he is looking forward to being in Group A alongside India and Pakistan. “Playing against them will be special. That’s the best motivation you can get. We want to emulate Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Babar Azam,” said Nizakat sports star after a high-intensity training session with his team at the ICC Academy in Dubai.

Hong Kong has come the closest among the Asian associated nations that have tried to enter the lair of the continental giants. In three of their four Asian Cup appearances in 2008, 2018 and 2022, Hong Kong was placed right next to India and Pakistan in the group stage.

Mention of a “group of death” makes Coach Johnston chuckle. The answer is honest and simple. “We have to take care of our game alone. We definitely have to go out and pull off the perfect match to be close to causing an upset. We’re realistic about that too, but it’s just an opportunity to go out and play [India and Pakistan] You know. You will play against and face the best.

“These guys bang, these guys throw balls in the air and bowlers buy you half a volley. It’s all about having the cricket intelligence and nailing those special moments. If we can do that with a smile on our faces, you will see a small cricket nation become competitive against two world powers,” Johnston said.

850 days crap

In his three years with the team, Johnston’s side were more than 850 days away from competitive cricket [between March 6, 2020 – July 11, 2022] due to COVID-19.

In 2019, after a heartbreaking defeat by Oman with just 12 rounds in T20 World Cup qualifiers, the side missed an earlier flight to Muscat, where the first round of the flagship event was being staged.

“We were well positioned. I think Oman was like five for 20 and they managed to get a competitive result. Unfortunately we found ourselves in a similar situation – two, three or four were down quickly and sort of regrouped and came back, but Oman played pretty good cricket. It was probably disappointing to come so close and miss out on qualifying for the World Cup. The learning was that it’s not easy [qualification for T20WC]. The guys kind of got over it now,” Johnston said.

Videoconferencing platforms effectively became a big part of Hong Kong’s preparations in 2020-21, shortly after it finished runners-up in the Asian Cricket Council’s eastern region qualifiers for the Asian Cup.

“We don’t have many facilities in Hong Kong. We effectively have three grass pitches. Two of these are privately owned, the other is run by the government. So as soon as the lockdown comes and the government closes sports facilities, we cannot train. In fact we spent 120 days on Zoom doing S&C meetings, chats and all the stuff that got the guys excited.”

Cricket Development in Hong Kong

Johnston also addressed the growing space of cricket under the Cricket Hong Kong Board. “Full praise to the players and the board. The players were still under contract during the time when there was no cricket. Generally, in a smaller country, when something like this happens, the first thing lost is the high-power budget. They stayed true to the players and gave us things to get better,” he said.

But Skipper Nizakat also sees a lot of room for improvement. “We have a domestic structure that is critical for bringing in talent. There are Saturday and Sunday leagues, the Premier League and now there is a new All Star League.

The game is still dominated by immigrants, but Johnston believes Hong Kong's qualification for such tournaments will help draw locals into the game.

The game is still dominated by immigrants, but Johnston believes Hong Kong’s qualification for such tournaments will help draw locals into the game. | Photo credit: Cricket Hong Kong

“We have many young talents who can represent Hong Kong in the future. It’s certainly better than when I was a kid. We still want more cricket. We’re playing more games now. That’s a plus,” added Nizakat.

The game is still dominated by immigrants, but Johnston believes Hong Kong’s qualification for such tournaments will help draw locals into the game. “It’s interesting. We don’t have any Chinese players at the moment. But there is a big push from Cricket Hong Kong to develop that through schools, both the male and female programs. If you look at the women’s programme, there are quite a few playing there Locals, which is great, there are probably five or six full-fledged Chinese men’s teams at the moment, so it’s exciting to get them involved and play cricket.

“Of course, the national team is currently supported by players of Pakistani and Indian origin. I think when you have a tournament like this and you can show the game on the spot, it’s a win-win situation. We have ground development underway. Having your own cricket establishment and base will be huge. It’s going to be fantastic from both a male and female perspective,” Johnston said.

Johnston acknowledged that competition in the associate cricket scene has evolved since his playing days. “If you look at Asia, we’re probably the strongest associated region with Oman, UAE, Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia and now Kuwait coming on board. So it’s a big achievement for these guys to get into something like the Asian Cup.

“Back then with Ireland we just did everything we could to prepare for the game of cricket. You are effectively transitioning from club cricket to international cricket. You could play a 45-year-old seam bowler bowling at 60 miles an hour to suddenly face someone like Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee at the Worlds ( laughs). That’s the difference between training then and now. It’s more structured now,” Johnston noted.

Nizakat has reserved special praise for Johnston. “Trent is a different character,” Nizakat said with a smile. “We got on well with him. Unfortunately we were banned off and on for 2.5 years so he didn’t have much time to prepare us. He is a strict disciplinarian. You must not be late for training or late for the team bus. It will work without you. This type of habit is important for a team to grow. He helped us pick up that trait,” he added.

“I certainly challenged her a lot,” Johnston said. “Probably few thought it was difficult, but I knew what they had to offer. I wanted to take that club cricket mentality away from them and give them that international mentality – to be more ruthless and more aware of the game. I think it’s the first time (last game against UAE) that we put together a full game since I’ve been here. Those two games against India and Pakistan will be a good sign to show us exactly where we are.”

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