Hong Kong ran India close the last time the two sides played each other in an international match, losing by just 26 runs in the Asia Cup four years ago.
While Nizakat Khan hammered 92 off 115 deliveries, captain Anshuman Rath led from the front with a 97-ball-73 for a 174-run opening stand. Even though that wasn’t enough in the end - a middle-order collapse let the team down - it was indeed a learning experience for Rath.
Over the last four years, a lot has changed for both Hong Kong cricket and Rath. The COVID-induced lockdown made things difficult for the team as even a simple outdoor training session was deemed impossible. And it was a long, long wait for the players before returning to the international arena.
For Rath, too, life has taken a new turn.
He moved to India in the middle of 2019 and last year broke into the Odisha domestic cricket team, harbouring dreams of representing India soon. It hasn’t been a joyride for Rath, but he is ready to accept the challenges.
The last time, I played against them (India) and this time, I am trying to play for them (soon).
— Anshuman Rath
On Wednesday evening, however, it will be an emotional moment for Rath as he watches the Asia Cup match between India and Hong Kong on television.
“It’s a bit of a weird position to be in. The last time, I played against them (India) and this time, I am trying to play for them (soon). I have a soft spot for both teams,” Rath told Sportstar from Bhubaneswar where he is attending Odisha’s preparatory camp for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
“If I am being honest, I just want to see a good and competitive game. May the best team win. I think India is looking very, very strong after rolling over Pakistan in a very good way in tough conditions. But Hong Kong being a dark horse, you wouldn’t want to take a team like that lightly. Hopefully, it will be a good contest and I will be neutral for this game. May the best team win,” Rath added with a smile.
Rath still remembers every moment from their last outing in 2018. A close defeat was indeed a bitter pill to swallow.
“The last time when we played against India, it was a bittersweet moment for me. Getting so close yet not crossing the line was disappointing. As a captain, it was very frustrating. But I think people still talk about that game even today. It was a really good time for Hong Kong cricket, especially after going through a few bumpy years,” the 24-year-old said.
The players, however, shrugged off the on-field disappointment by meeting their Indian cricket heroes. Under Rohit Sharma, a star-studded Indian team had featured in the tournament that year, and the Hong Kong players had the opportunity to interact with the players.
“We were surprised to see how down-to-earth the Indian players were. When we went to the captains’ meeting and clicked pictures with Rohit, he struck a conversation with me. He was very friendly and inquired about Hong Kong cricket,” Rath reminisces.
“Even after the match, some of us went into the Indian dressing room to meet a few players, they were really nice. We gained a lot of respect from them and the Indian players appreciated the kind of hard work we put in that day. They never behaved like superstars. They were very warm and friendly to us…”
The last few years have been difficult for Hong Kong cricket, but Rath is happy to see his ‘old team’ overcoming the odds to come so far. “It’s very nice to see the guys back in the Asia Cup. It just shows how good Associate cricket is. You could have a bad tournament, but that does not mean you are a bad team. Hong Kong did not have the best of times in the World Cricket League Challenge B, but it managed to bounce back immediately and qualified for the Asia Cup. That shows that Associate cricket is here to stay,” he said.
Like quite a few other Associate teams, Hong Kong, too, suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March 6, 2020, and July 11, 2022, the team had no competitive cricket due to the pandemic-induced lockdown and its after-effects. “A lot of people don’t know that Hong Kong had one of the strictest COVID regulations in the world and it still has a quarantine period. The team has not played any international cricket for more than two years, so for them to come into a big-ticket tournament and do well is a great thing. This shows the spirit of Hong Kong cricket and it makes me proud to have once been part of that system,” Rath said.
Three years ago, when Rath decided to shift base to India, he did not know how things would pan out. Last year, he was part of the camp headed by the then coach Wasim Jaffer, and eventually made it to the State team. But this time, as the BCCI plans to host a full-fledged domestic tournament, Rath is excited. “We had a couple of years of COVID, which kind of stumped everything from a domestic cricket point of view. Also, last year, we did not have a full season, so it’s kind of difficult to find your footing when nothing is consistent. But this year, the BCCI has started preparing for the whole season and I can finally get a proper taste of what the Indian domestic cricket season feels like,” he said.
“Obviously, it is very hot currently in Odisha. These are small things, but I always enjoy challenges and see how it goes. Hopefully, I can make things count…”
Growing up in Hong Kong, Rath heard stories from his family about India. Now he’s experiencing the country for real and trying to make his dream a reality too.