A perennial struggle for recognition

For players from Associate nations, a cricket career can be rewarding but frustrating, too.

Aiming high: Hong Kong’s Anshuman Rath (left) is open to the idea of shifting his base to another country for better opportunities.   -  AFP

Cricket’s custodian, the International Cricket Council (ICC), faces considerable challenges in making cricket popular in a new country.

However, its efforts to this end over the years have yielded results as a few countries have emerged into cricketing prominence. Afghanistan and Ireland have now joined the Test-playing club, giving them the ticket to be part of the big league.

The journey of theirs has not been an easy one. The Associates need to compete in World Cricket League Championship to stand a chance of qualifying for the ICC-organised events like the World Cup, World T20 and the Champions Trophy. Two or three teams make it, giving them the best opportunity to showcase their potential by playing against cricket's big boys. Once the tournament is over, the teams again go back to the same league, to fight for a qualification spot for another big tournament.

'Massive' talent

The Associate nations have now been around for quite some time, yearning for that recognition to compete at the top level.

"Associate nations have really taken cricket by storm in the last couple of years. We can see the success story with the Afghan cricket team, players emerging from associate nations such as Rashid Khan, Paul Stirling who have really put a lot of pressure on the ICC. And over the years we can see the talent in the associate world is massive and hopefully the ICC would recognise that," Hong Kong's opening batsman Anshuman Rath told Sportstar.

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Rath's family moved to Hong Kong from Bhubaneswar in the 1990s for business and settled there. In his adopted country, Rath's career as an international cricketer took wings. The expatriate families like Rath's have also played a major role in fanning the popularity of cricket in South-East Asian and Western Asian countries.

Improved facilities

The challenges still remain in these countries in terms of facilities, but Rath says things have improved in Hong Kong since the day he started playing. "The structure has definitely improved since I played. However, it is still difficult to have proper facilities due to the lack of space that Hong Kong has. But over the last few years, the facilities have definitely improved with the Hong Kong T20 Blitz taking shape as well as Hong Kong doing so well in global tournaments."

Mark Chapman, formerly an international cricketer from Hong Kong, is now playing for New Zealand. Photo: AFP

 

Onus is on the ICC and the respective cricket bodies of these associate nations to sustain the interest level of the local populace towards the game. Talking about Hong Kong, Rath said. "I do believe the game is growing rapidly in Hong Kong. There are plenty of initiatives that Cricket Hong Kong have set to make sure the local kids get access to enjoying cricket at a young age and learn to love it. Tournaments like the Hong Kong Blitz are only going to increase the popularity of cricket with the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Darren Sammy coming and playing," he said.

Shifting bases

For a player like Rashid Khan of Afghanistan, professional life becomes relatively easy with the recognition via international cricket and an IPL contract. However, it is difficult for talented expatriate cricketers playing for different associate teams to keep themselves motivated without playing against the best in the business. Hence the tough decision of making a switch to another country, preferably of their origin, is sometimes taken. Rath's former team-mate at Hong Kong, Mark Chapman, earlier this month made his debut for New Zealand in the Twenty20 International (T20I) tri-series also involving Australia and England. He had played 19 T20Is and two One-Day Internationals (ODIs) for Hong Kong.

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Having now played 12 ODIs and 20 T20Is for Hong Kong, Rath is more focussed on the upcoming World Cup qualifiers starting next month in Zimbabwe and says he has thought about making a switch to another country. "It has been an option that I am exploring. I was in the U.K. playing county cricket with Middlesex, but due to visa issues, was not allowed to sign a professional contract. I am currently shifting all my focus towards the qualifiers and will assess my options after it’s over," he said.

For an Associate team and its players, the experience can be exhilarating and at times frustrating.