Hong Kong tries to strike local chords
From the story of Afghanistan, whose first generation of players learned the game in refugee camps in Pakistan, to the development of Irish cricket across sectarian lines, and a tiny fishing village in Papua New Guinea which produced half the national side that earned ODI status, it is not hard to locate romance in Associate cricket. But it seems a little harder to find in Hong Kong, one of the world's financial centre.
"In Hong Kong, a city where everyone seems to be from somewhere else, just who is an expat, anyway?" the Wall Street Journal asked last year. The diversity manifests itself in Hong Kong's cricket team.
"I think the style of cricket is unique - and quite hard to explain," observes Tim Cutler, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Cricket Association (HKCA). The team mixes "the wristy flair from the subcontinent with the traditional methods coached throughout western academies, with players who have learnt their trade all over the world - usually while attending overseas universities before returning to Hong Kong."
Cricket in Hong Kong has quite a history. During the first Opium War in 1841, the British Army decreed that cricket grounds would be constructed adjacent to all army barracks in the area that became Hong Kong. The following year Hong Kong became a British colony, and settlers there tried to replicate the aspects of British life they most missed. For many, cricket featured high up on this list: the Hong Kong Cricket Club was established in 1851.
One hundred and sixty-four years later, Hong Kong cricket is at its most exciting juncture yet. Last year was a seminal one. The side almost qualified for the 2015 World Cup, earned ODI status until 2018, and then defeated Bangladeshin their first appearance in the World T20.
Yet while cricket is now the highest-ranked team sport in Hong Kong, many do not see the side as representing Hong Kong so much as Pakistani expats. Nine members of their 15-man squad for the World T20 Qualifiers, including Irfan and Nadeem Ahmed, two heroes from the toppling of Bangladesh in Chittagong, were born in Pakistan; but those who learned the game in Hong Kong increasingly dominate the squad. Six members were either born in Hong Kong or have Hong Kong passports; four others, including the teenagers Waqas Khan and Kinchit Shah, predominantly learned the game in Hong Kong.
The most fundamental question cricketers in Hong Kong face is where to play. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and flat land is scarce. Hong Kong has only three grass pitches. Most grounds use artificial wickets.
"Access to grounds and quality of facilities are a perpetual battle for all sports in Hong Kong, and cricket's ground requirements make it an even steeper task," Cutler says, though cricket should benefit from the government building a new US$3.2 billion multipurpose sports complex. Still, cricket cannot be snooty about where to develop new grounds: HKCA is exploring if the sport can be played at former landfill sites and reservoir areas.
It embodies the sense that cricket's development in Hong Kong is still nascent. The playing base remains far too shallow: there are about 600 adult cricketers today, one-tenth of the number playing rugby union. Given this, Hong Kong's recent achievements have been remarkable, but the sport needs to attract the Chinese population, who make up over 90% of Hong Kong, for the national team's success to be sustainable. And historically the Chinese population has simply not cared for cricket.
Changing this is a challenge Cutler embraced when he was unveiled as the first chief executive in HKCA's history in April. The opening up of Higher Performance Programme funding, after Hong Kong gained ODI status last year, has created an opportunity to engage the Chinese population. It will not be easy, especially with the BCCI and ECB having vetoed the inclusion of cricket in the Olympics, despite its transformative potential.
"We find ourselves having to split our limited resources between not only training our elite squads but also to edify a population that in its majority knows very little about the sport," Cutler explains. Even after the success of 2014, Hong Kong must do it all with one-tenth of the ICC funding enjoyed by Zimbabwe: that explains why only nine players are contracted to HKCA.
An amiable Australian, Cutler moved to Hong Kong two years ago, where he worked in marine insurance before turning his attentions to cricket administration full-time, and befuddles batsmen with his left-arm spin. Until he became chief executive, Cutler had an app on his phone counting down the days until March 16, 2017 - the day he becomes eligible for selection for Hong Kong.
That dream has been put on hold, at least, while Cutler confronts a bigger job. Despite his youth - he is just 33, which seems rather young to hobnob with the Big Three in the boardrooms of Dubai - Cutler edged out over 100 other applicants, so impressed was HKCA by his local knowledge and vision for the sport.
"Cricket has the perfect opportunity to embed itself in Hong Kong, not as something once thrust on its people by colonial rule, but [in a manner where] all Hong Kongers can have the opportunity to learn the game," he wrote in his application. "Hong Kong is screaming out for something that can unite the region in defining its collective identity, beyond political proclivities. I believe that together we can make cricket that 'something'." Cutler's ambition, he says, is "to make the sport fit the region, rather than the other way around."
And there are some encouraging signs. HKCA's website is on the verge of becoming fully bilingual, and the board is rewriting the Chinese character cricket glossary to better reflect the game. The Hong Kong Sixes, which ran from 1992 to 2012, will return later this year; for the first time, commentary will also be offered in Chinese, geared towards educating viewers about the game.
To engage the Chinese media and take the game to schools, HKCA employs three full-time Chinese development coaches; a further two are to be appointed later in 2015. Around 1000 local children in government schools received introductory cricket programmes this year, and 250 of those now take part in regular programmes; an all-Chinese Under-17s league will be launched when the new season begins in August. Two Chinese clubs already compete in Division Two of the Saturday league, and a Dragons team of fully Chinese players will make their debut in the more prestigious Sunday League next season. The women's game hints at what is possible: over half the squad that played in the Asian Games last year was indigenous Chinese. And one member of the men's squad, the left-hand batsman Mark Chapman, is half-Chinese.
One Chinese cricket officer is James Chan, who learned the game in London before taking up his post in Hong Kong in February. "Our biggest challenge is having to explain what cricket is," he says. "Almost all local Chinese have no knowledge about cricket, or that cricket is played in Hong Kong."
The fiercely competitive academic culture exacerbates the challenge. "With most forms of cricket taking up most of the day, parents pursue less time-consuming activities such as basketball and football," Chan says. He is trying to combat that by presenting cricket as "like a chess game, a logic tool creating unique methods of problem solving which can be used and adapted in other aspects of life."
But he believes the most attractive aspect of cricket to Hong Kong parents might be its role within English culture: "cricket's unique selling point". The hope is that parents might see cricketing prowess as a tool to earning a sporting scholarship at an elite school in England.
"Our responsibility is to spread the word that the Hong Kong Cricket Association is willing to help if there are candidates wanting to take this path," Chan says. While he is not Chinese, Anshuman Rath shows what is possible: born in Hong Kong, he has earned scholarships with Eton and then Harrow, who gave him permission to play in Hong Kong's ODIs against Papua New Guinea last year on the condition that he brought his textbooks with him. Four days after turning 17, he scored 55 at No. 3.
Increased recognition of the value of sport in Hong Kong gives cricket a further opportunity to grow. Should cricket make progress in engaging Chinese children, it could engender a virtuous cycle, where the government (which paid for Hong Kong's preparation tour for the World T20 Qualifiers) becomes more inclined to offer greater support. "The government is willing to support sports more who are better at supporting themselves in not only engaging local communities but also in establishing stronger controls and better governance," Cutler says. The timing could not be better for HKCA.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts