Simon Cook has been a Hong Kong resident since 2012, when he finished a first-class career with Middlesex that brought him 342 first-class wickets in 141 matches. He travels around the country in his capacity as Hong Kong's head coach, scouting for talent, but is constrained by a number of challenges, which he discusses in this chat with ESPNcricinfo during the Asia Cup in the UAE.
How tough is it to motivate a group without ODI status? How do you deal with it?
It's tough. We try and isolate the players from political talk. There are always questions on issues like ODI status. 'Is it fair' or 'is it not fair?' We can sit here and debate that for hours together. We're of the opinion that two-and-a-half years of the World Cricket League should be rewarded in a better way than having a bad week [at the World Cup qualifiers] in Zimbabwe. It happened to the Netherlands four years ago, so the same situation can be used as a catalyst, but the fact is we've lost four years. There's a lot of talk at the moment about ways of assigning ODI status to top Associates: whether you assign it on a tournament-to-tournament basis or go through the ranking system, I'm not sure. I will be attending an ICC meeting in Madrid about the WCL. Whether we talk ODI status, I'm not sure, but the fact is we're at the receiving end of a poor week in Zimbabwe.
What did it take to lift the team from that slump?
It didn't take a lot. We know we had a bad week. You don't become a bad player overnight. It's about making sure the players still believe in themselves. Unfortunately it happened at the wrong time. We had honest chats about how we can improve and they responded brilliantly at the Asia Cup Qualifiers. After losing to Malaysia in the first game, it could've slid down, but they showed character to win the next six games in a row.
What are the challenges for a Hong Kong cricketer currently?
It's largely an amateur sport. Even now, you play one week and then have three weeks off. In Premier Division cricket, you play 10 games in nine months. You can't build momentum like that. We've got three grounds and so many teams, so you have to rotate fixtures. There are five premier clubs and the league is structured in different parts of the year, depending on the availability of the national team. They play in a T20 League, 50-over league and only two two-day matches. You can't get a constant run of form by playing so little. As a player, you get a hundred, and then wonder what next for three weeks? Coming from an English system, where you play every Saturday-Sunday, train two days, then play two more games, this is different, but you have to live with it and be realistic.
What have you done to drive more cricketers to the game?
We've now brought in full-time contracts for 13 cricketers, strength and conditioning coaches and physios. Players are trained to work on other aspects of their games like lifestyle and wellness. The guys get cooking lessons, so that they can eat properly and manage their weights. The good thing is the average age of the current national team is in the mid-20s. Gradually we're getting to a stage where we're starting to move forward. These systems are also trickling down to the Under-16s and Under-19s. But it's a gradual process.
"We can't retain players who want to go to university for banking or law; they're full-time careers. We can't stop them, we shouldn't stop them."
There must be hindrances too?
Of course. We lose players at 23-24. In a normal county system, that's the peak age for a young cricketer, and you look at possibly having him in the mix for 10-12 years. That's not the case here. Chris Carter for example is going to flight school probably after the Asia Cup, Jamie Atkinson, our previous captain, wanted to become a full-time teacher. He's still available, but can't commit all the time. Mark Chapman went to New Zealand at 20, and needs to have a three-year cooling-off period if he wants to return, but he played a lot of early cricket here. So we lose all our players at 23-24, so we have to make sure we invest a lot in the Under-16s and Under-19s. We're slowly having a core group who will probably play international cricket at a young age, so we need to ensure we maximise their time with us before they go off to university.
What can you do to prevent losing players?
It all comes down to money. We're governed by things we can't control. Hong Kong is among the most expensive places to live and work in the world. Our player contracts are not enough for them to realistically live and work, have a family and make a career by just playing cricket. We know we can't pay as much, but if we can provide a professional set-up to potentially play in CPL, Canada T20, PSL or BPL to earn franchise contracts, that's great. It could also give us some spin-off benefits when it comes to their development. So we support them to find avenues to play elsewhere. It is a constant challenge.
So if a player wants to study and yet play cricket, which may not allow him to commit 100% all the time, what do you do?
We can't retain players who want to go to university for banking or law; they're full-time careers. We can't stop them, we shouldn't stop them. It's just a case of giving them an opportunity at another career. Some delay going off, some don't. I'm very big on players getting an education degree that allows them to buy opportunities to have a crack at cricket, without worrying about being picked or having an annual retainer. Once you have something to fall back on, you can play with freedom. We try and stress upon this for a lot of them from the 16-19 age-group.
How does selection work in Hong Kong, with so many players also having alternate careers?
We contract 13 players, but that doesn't guarantee national selection. Selection-wise, it's tough because we can't go always by the numbers because of huge gaps between matches. We're also constrained by dimensions of the ground. Suddenly you will see guys getting a lot of runs, and then when they transition into grounds that have 75m boundaries, they struggle, because they'd use the same options that got them runs in smaller grounds. We have a group of three selectors. Apart from them, we talk to coaches and umpires to get feedback. You try and look at how players play, are they playing in a way that will give them success. We also look at players sometimes who don't get runs. That might be because they're not willing to take risks, like to work the ball around, pick gaps and not look to hit a 45-metre six. Sometimes such players may be better suited to make the transition to international cricket. So we have to be careful to find a mix.
How do you scout for talent?
The one thing we have an advantage over any other country in the world is, we know every single player intimately in our system. We don't have that many, but our five main clubs produce 90% of our players. We know all the players and coaches, so from that aspect it is pretty easy. No ground is farther than 20 minutes, you can watch every single game across the three main grounds on one day. You can't do that in most countries. That is an advantage when it comes to talent identification, but it's the other aspects like retaining them that is a challenge.