Darren Tucker December 10, 2008

'We need to take the game to schools'

The Hong Kong Cricket Association president talks about the health of the game in the territory



Lack of turf pitches is one of the major problems in the development of Hong Kong cricket © Hong Kong Cricket Sixes

Darren Tucker's representative career was so short that you might have missed it if you blinked.

Now the chairman of the Hong Kong Cricket Association, Tucker had the misfortune of playing in one of the great eras of New South Wales cricket, competing against the likes of the Waugh twins, Mark Taylor, John Dyson and Greg Matthews for places in the batting order.

Despite being in the NSW squad for more than six years and having the likes of Doug Walters, John Benaud and Ian Davis as club team-mates, he made just two limited-overs appearances - both away from the Sydney Cricket Ground - and never played in the Sheffield Shield.

"I was up against great players from Test level, some of whom belonged in the 'best-ever' category," Tucker said. "I never seemed to be at the right place at the right time. It was disappointing to never get the chance to find out how I'd do in first-class cricket."

Having grown up in the northwest Sydney suburb of Baulkham Hills, Tucker knows what it's like to come from a cricket-crazy family. His younger brother Rod played 103 first-class matches over a dozen years for New South Wales and Tasmania, and is now an international umpire.

Tucker's two List A matches came a few weeks apart at the end of 1989 - but he'll never forget his debut, against Western Australia at the WACA where he walked to the crease for New South Wales after Mark Waugh was dismissed. "I only scored 11, but I felt comfortable," he said. "I think I was caught behind by [Tim] Zoehrer, trying to hit one over [future England paceman Alan] Mullally's head."

Tucker also had two seasons in the Central Lancashire League in England, but before his 30th birthday he had retired from serious cricket and moved down to Melbourne to concentrate on a business career.

Three years ago he relocated to Hong Kong, and in May his mix of corporate acumen and cricketing pedigree fetched him the chairman's job at the Hong Kong Cricket Association, with a mandate to introduce a more business-minded approach. Tucker combines his role with his day job as regional manager, Asia Pacific, of New Balance, a global sportswear manufacturer for whom he has worked for the past 14 years.

But now, as the territory looks to close the gap on the elite cricket nations and embrace a massive potential market in mainland China, Tucker is looking to help appoint a full-time CEO for Hong Kong Cricket by March. "They'll need to generate revenue, and take the game outside its current base," he said. "We need either a sporting CEO or a business CEO with an interest in sport.

"Our strategy is to be involved as cricket grows in China, and look at how we can become immersed there, whether it's playing as a province in a Chinese competition or helping in a development role."

China has the goal of becoming a Test-playing nation by 2020, and will hold a Twenty20 tournament when the southern city of Guangzhou hosts the 2010 Asian Games.

At the age of 46, and still a successful batsman in the Sunday league for local club Wanderers (he smashed 181 not out in a 50-over game last year), Tucker has discovered first hand the challenges facing Hong Kong cricket, most notably a lack of suitable stadiums in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

"The good news is that we'll have two international grounds in the next 12 to 24 months, and then we can hold international competitions," he said. "Because we don't have a [suitable] ground, we've had to play ACC Trophy games in Thailand."

There's also the lack of turf wickets, which is holding back the development of some of Hong Kong's exciting young batsmen. "There is most definitely some talent there, and they tend to take a subcontinental approach to cricket and bat like Sehwag, going after it from ball one," he said. "But as they don't play on turf all the time, there are challenges when they encounter slower wickets."

Even so, it's been a successful year for the Hong Kong national side, who won the ACC trophy in Malaysia in July (beating the United Arab Emirates in the final), were runners-up in the ICC Division 4 in Tanzania in October (losing to Afghanistan), and upset the All Stars team and defending champions Sri Lanka in November's Hong Kong Cricket Sixes. They didn't disgrace themselves in the Asia Cup in Pakistan either. If they make the final of the ICC Division 3 in Argentina in January, Hong Kong will qualify for the 12-team ICC World Cup Qualifier in South Africa in April.

Their stunning five-wicket victory at Kowloon Cricket Club over the All Stars team that included Stephen Fleming, Sanath Jayasuriya and Justin Langer - albeit in an unconventional format - stands out during a hectic 12 months.

Tucker sees the ongoing success of the Hong Kong Cricket Sixes - though it lost money this year in a harsh economic climate where sponsors dropped out - as a key ingredient to expanding cricket at grassroots level.

Few ethnic Chinese have taken to the sport in a serious way, and the national side has such a core of players from Pakistani roots that Urdu - not Cantonese or English - has been known to be the language of choice at some team meetings.

"We are working on the developmental side trying to make cricket seen as a more community-based, healthy lifestyle sport," Tucker said. "We have to take our glasses off and be realistic, but we've got to get the game into schools and get local kids playing, even if they have to use basketball courts and indoor stadiums."

Jason Dasey is a host of Cricinfo SportsCenter and two international editions of SportsCenter on ESPN