December 2, 2015

Mark Chapman: New Zealand star?

The batsman has made a name for himself with Hong Kong, but he knows that his best chance of making it big lies elsewhere

Chapman after his ODI debut hundred for Hong Kong © HKCA/Bridget Rive

Ten cricketers have scored a century on ODI debut. The group is small and distinguished, including Desmond Haynes, Dennis Amiss, Andy Flower, Phillip Hughes and Martin Guptill. On November 16, Mark Chapman became the second-youngest to join their ranks, when he hit an unbeaten 124 for Hong Kong against UAE.

It is unlikely to be his last ODI hundred. Who he scores them for is perhaps more debatable.

Charlie Burke has spent over a decade coaching in Western Australia, the East Asia Pacific region and Hong Kong, where he has been involved, with the odd hiatus, since May 2010. He has seen three players "I would put my house on to play at the highest level - Test cricket".

The first is Mitchell Marsh. The second is Sam Whiteman, who is widely tipped to be Australia's next Test wicketkeeper. The third is Chapman. "These three are carbon copies of each other as young men. They are cheeky, hard-working, want to learn, passionate, and don't take the game too seriously, but on the field they are as competitive as you will see. Chappy will play for New Zealand if all goes his way."

Chapman is qualified to play for New Zealand because his dad is from there. He has lived in the country since he was 14, first attending boarding school and now studying at Auckland University. Yet he is at least as much a product of Hong Kong, where he was born and, after his dad took him to a junior training session at the Hong Kong Cricket Club, learned the game.

For the Hong Kong Cricket Association, Chapman is not merely a poster boy because of his precociousness. He is the only player in Hong Kong's squad with Chinese blood (his mother is Chinese), and the HKCA hopes Chapman can help grow the game in the Chinese community. Even if only for a match, they would like him to captain Hong Kong Dragons, the all-Chinese side that plays in the Sunday league.

Chapman does not regard his background as significant while playing for Hong Kong, but knows it could aid cricket's development there. "We're all out there for the same cause. Because I'm half-Chinese doesn't make me any different - if people want to see it that way then so be it," he says. "If it helps grow Chinese cricket, I'm very happy with that, but I don't see it as a critical factor."

An all-format player: Chapman can pull off the odd scoop over fine leg © ICC/Sportsfile

He has no doubt cricket can make it big among the Chinese population, in China and Hong Kong alike, provided the sport gains Olympics status. "It would be huge because Olympic sports get so much more funding in China and Hong Kong. We've been in and out of funding with the Hong Kong Sports Institute. Cricket becoming an Olympic sport would give it that extra push and get it extra funding," he says. "The Chinese people are very driven. As soon as you put that carrot in front of them they're definitely striving to achieve that goal."

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Chapman has been forced to grow up while playing international cricket. When he was 16, Burke successfully pushed for his inclusion for a World Cricket League Division Three tournament. "His maturity as a young man and as a cricketer stood out to me from the outset," says Burke. After an inauspicious start, Chapman clung on to his place for the final, against Papua New Guinea, and made a match-winning 70 not out an innings he still regards as his best.

Even a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee the following year, sustained while playing rugby in New Zealand, has not stifled his progress. At 21, he is already vice-captain and a gnarled veteran of five years of international cricket. "I definitely see myself as a senior player," he says,

Increasingly, he is playing like one too. Diminutively built, Chapman is imperturbable at the crease. His game is built upon finesse, playing the ball unusually late, caressing it into gaps, and harrying fielders with his running between the wickets. The players he most admirers are Kane Williamson and Kumar Sangakkara, a fellow left-hander. But Chapman can eschew orthodoxy to suit the T20 age. He shuffles brazenly around the crease and has a penchant for the dink over fine leg, and he is deceptively powerful when hitting the ball through the off side.

"I've batted around guys a lot but I've looked to take on a slightly more dominant role, not just anchoring and fiddling the ball around. I have to push on a little bit and also guide the guys along - especially the younger guys, I've got to help them and keep them calm in situations they may have never faced before." A 39-ball half-century during Hong Kong's recent T20 against a Pakistan XI provided further evidence that he is not easily overawed.

Chapman impressed against Afghanistan in the 2014 World T20, top-scoring after he was hit on the helmet © ICC

When Hong Kong played an England XI a few weeks earlier, Chapman was following the game from the library at Auckland University, cramming for the end of his third-year engineering exams. "It's not easy to be sitting halfway around a world looking at a computer screen but it's not something I can control." After completing his exams and flying 20 hours from New Zealand, Chapman arrived in Dubai two days before his ODI debut.

Just as well that self-reliance is a Chapman hallmark. "He is his own best personal coach," Burke observes. "He loved it when I introduced a team analyst, as it gave him more opportunities to develop, learn, observe and improve."

Outwardly laidback and with an impish streak - as a 17-year-old, he fired a toy rocket launcher at his coach, Burke - Chapman does not lack steeliness. During the last World T20, he was smashed on the grille by Afghanistan's Dawlat Zadran but remained at the crease and top-scored.

"Chappy has the ingredients I love in a young cricketer," Burke says. "He dreams of playing cricket but it's not the only focus. He loves life and what it has to offer, trains hard but also enjoys having a laugh, and expects and demands effort from everyone around him, including the coaching staff."

Such traits could be imbued in others in the Hong Kong set-up. While the side is brimming with talent, consistency has proved elusive: in the World T20 Qualifiers, Hong Kong beat Afghanistan and Ireland, with Chapman playing crucial innings in both games, but they also lost to Jersey and the United States.

"To be a professional cricketer you have to consistently be able to perform your skills," he says. "We haven't quite reached that level yet where we can consistently day-in-day-out perform our skills. Until we make that change and adjust to being true professionals, those sorts of inconsistent performances will happen. It's not ideal."

Charlie Burke (right): "He [Chapman] is his own best personal coach. He dreams of playing cricket but it's not the only focus. He loves life and what it has to offer" © HKCA

Since being awarded ODI status in January 2014, Hong Kong have gained funds to contract eight cricketers. Yet professionalism "doesn't just happen in an instant", as Chapman says. "There's also got to be a mental change - thinking this is what you're doing for a living. We've still got a little bit of work to do. I've seen the guys have responded really well to full-time cricket but a lot more work can still be done.

"Games like the England and Pakistan matches have been great for us - because we've had exposure against the Test nations, how they warm up, how they go about their business. Playing against true professionals is something we can't buy and something we learn so much from."

Even as he prepares for Hong Kong's second consecutive World T20, Chapman remains a part-time international cricketer who plays alongside studying for his degree. When he finishes at university next November, Chapman intends to put all his energy into cricket. The HKCA is in the process of reviewing their contracts, and plan to switch from their current deals, which are designed to allow players to do part-time work alongside, to genuinely professionals deals. "He will no doubt be offered one. It's up to him if he is interested," Burke says.

But Chapman's future is "more likely to be in New Zealand", he admits. He has trained extensively with the Auckland 2nd XI, working with former New Zealand allrounder Andre Adams. "He's very supportive of me playing for Hong Kong and getting the exposure internationally, and they're quite keen to have me in their Auckland system, which I'm delighted about.

"If you asked any cricketer what they wanted to play, nine out of ten would probably say Test cricket. That's still technically possible for Hong Kong with the Intercontinental Cup, but the chances probably aren't as great as me giving it a go in New Zealand - trying to make the Auckland side and then really putting up some numbers for them."

Hong Kong would be wise to enjoy Chapman while they can.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

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