It has been a tough couple of years for Hong Kong cricket on either side of the COVID-stricken 2020 when even a simple outdoor training session was deemed impossible. The fact that the small cricketing nation also missed two successive T20 World Cups (2021 and 2022), ousted by narrow margins in the qualifiers, hurt further.
For head coach Trent Johnston and his men, the much-needed relief finally arrived in Al Amerat, Muscat last Wednesday — a spot in the six-team Asia Cup 2022. And quite understandably, Johnston, an Irish legend and pioneer of the ‘chicken dance’, grooved to ‘ Kala Chashma,’ a hit Bollywood number, with his boys after the side’s momentous win over UAE in the qualifying round. It had also registered clinical wins against Singapore and Kuwait.
All Johnston wants now is his team to enjoy its time on the field for ‘they may never get an opportunity to play India and Pakistan in a tournament like this again.’
Notably, in the previous edition in 2018, Hong Kong came genuinely close to beating India before losing by just 26 runs in its final ODI appearance.
Nizakat Khan, who opened the batting for Hong Kong at the time, made 92 off 115. As the leader of the unit now, he is excited at being grouped alongside India and Pakistan in Group A. “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,” Nizakat told Sportstar after a high-intensity practice session with his team at the ICC Academy in Dubai.
Hong Kong has come the closest among the Asian associate nations, who have been trying to enter the den of the continental giants. In three of its four Asia Cup appearances in 2008, 2018, and 2022, Hong Kong has been directly placed alongside India and Pakistan in the group stage.
The mention of a ‘group of death’ makes coach Johnston chuckle. The response is honest and simple. “We have to worry about our game alone. We have to certainly go out and execute the perfect match to be close to causing an upset. We are also realistic about that but it’s just the opportunity to go out and play [India and Pakistan] you know. You’ll be bowling against and facing the best.
“Those guys nick off, those guys hit balls in the air and bowlers buy you a half-volley. It’s just about having the cricket smarts and nailing those particular moments. If we can go out and do that with a smile on our face, I think you’ll see a small cricketing nation getting competitive against two world powers,” Johnston said.
850 days of bummer
In his three years with the side, Johnston’s team has been away from competitive cricket for over 850 days [between March 6, 2020 - July 11, 2022] due to COVID-19.
In 2019, a heartbreaking defeat to Oman by just 12 runs in the T20 World Cup qualifiers saw the side miss an earlier flight to Muscat where the first round of the showpiece event was played.
“We were in a good position. I think Oman was like five for 20 and they managed to get to a competitive score. Unfortunately, we were in a similar situation - two, three or four down quickly and sort of regrouped and got back but Oman played some pretty good cricket. Probably coming that close to qualifying for the World Cup and missing out was disappointing. The learning was that it is not easy [qualification for T20WC]. The boys have sort of put it behind now,” Johnston said.
Video conferencing platforms effectively became a large part of Hong Kong’s preparations in 2020-21, shortly after it finished runner-up in the Asian Cricket Council’s Eastern region qualifiers for the Asia Cup.
“We don’t have a lot of facilities in Hong Kong. We have effectively three turf pitches. Two of them are privately owned and the other is run by the government. So as soon as the lockdown comes and the government locks down sporting facilities, we can’t train. Effectively, we spent 120 days on Zoom doing S&C meetings, chats and those things that had the boys excited.”
Cricket development in Hong Kong
Johnston also elaborated on cricket’s growing space under the Cricket Hong Kong board. “Full credit to the players and the board. The players were still contracted through the period when there was no cricket going on. Generally, in a smaller country when something like that happens, the first thing that goes is the high-performance budget. They’ve stuck true to the players and provided us things to get better,” he said.
Skipper Nizakat, however, also feels that there’s still a lot of scope for improvement. “We have a domestic structure in place, which is crucial for funneling talent. There are Saturday and Sunday leagues, Premier League and now, there’s a new All-Star league.
“We’ve lots of juniors coming through the ranks, who can represent Hong Kong in the future. It’s certainly better than when I was growing up. We still want more cricket. We play more games now. That’s a plus,” Nizakat added.
The game is still dominated by immigrants, but Johnston believes Hong Kong’s qualification for such tournaments will help induct locals into the game. “It’s interesting. We don’t have any Chinese players at the moment. But there’s a big push from Cricket Hong Kong to develop that through schools, both the male and female programs. If you have a look at the women’s program, they have quite a few locals playing which is great. There are probably five or six full men’s Chinese teams at the moment. So having them involved and playing cricket is exciting.
“Obviously, the national team is currently supplied by players of Pakistani and Indian origin. I think when you’ve got a tournament like this and can expose the game locally, it’s a win-win situation. We have ground development going on. To have our own cricketing facility and base will be huge. That’ll be fantastic from both a male and female perspective,” Johnston said.
Johnston acknowledged the competition in the associate cricket scene has evolved since his playing days. “When you look at Asia, we are probably the strongest associate region with Oman, UAE, Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia and now Kuwait coming on board. So, to progress into something like the Asia Cup is a huge achievement for these guys.
“Back in the day with Ireland, we just did what we could to get ready to play cricket. You’re effectively going from playing club cricket to playing international cricket. You could be playing a 45-year-old seam bowler that’s bowling 60mph to all of a sudden facing someone like Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee at the World Cup ( laughs). That’s the sort of difference between training then and now. It is more structured now,” Johnston remarked.
Nizakat has reserved special praise for Johnston. “Trent is a different character,” Nizakat said with a smile. “We have gelled well with him. Unfortunately, we were under lockdown, on and off, for 2.5 years, so he didn’t have much time to prepare us. He is a strict disciplinarian. You cannot be late for your training or arrive late for the team bus. It’ll leave without you. This kind of habit is important for a team to grow. He has helped us imbibe this trait,” he added.
“I have certainly challenged them a lot,” said Johnston. “Few people probably thought it was hard but I knew what they could offer. I wanted to take that club cricket mentality away and put that international mentality into their mind - be more ruthless and game aware. I think it’s the first time (last match vs UAE) we put a complete game together since I’ve been here. These two games against India and Pakistan will be a good marker to show us exactly where we are.”