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Alan Gardner in Chittagong
March 15, 2014
The sentiment that playing at the World T20 is a dream come true for many of the players from Associate nations has been commonly expressed in the build-up to the tournament. Sitting in a press room and being repeatedly asked to articulate the feeling may not have been a life goal of similar magnitude but they are taking to this area of the game like waterfowl to the Bay of Bengal, too.
Jamie Atkinson and Paras Khadka, captains of Hong Kong and Nepal respectively, both spoke about the importance of their opening World T20 fixture, which takes place in Chittagong on Sunday, for stimulating interest in their respective countries. They were also keen to stress the need to take things a game at a time, as well as each opponent seriously. There was mention of "positives" and "momentum" and even guys putting "their hands up" for selection. In short, they were naturals.
There is a serious point here, in that arriving at a major tournament can be a daunting experience, with strange new codes of conduct (anti-doping, media demands, official functions) for first-timers to adjust to. Security is such that the teams largely have to remain in their hotels, or take a squadron of armed guards around with them.
This is coupled with an explosion of interest. In Chittagong, crowds of people were still milling around the entrance to the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium long after sundown, just to catch a glimpse of the players. Even if the game is not sold out - and with Bangladesh playing in Dhaka, that is likely - substantial crowds are expected. Then there is the TV audience, which provides a further incentive for teams unused to the bright glare of publicity.
"It's a massive occasion for both sides and Associates in general, it's one of the few opportunities we're going to get to play on the world stage," Atkinson said. "The games will be broadcast across the world so people can actually see the standard of cricket that's being played at the moment by the Associates. I think over the last couple of games people are realising that that gap is beginning to close, particularly for other teams like Ireland and Afghanistan, who've claimed some big scalps. So we're hoping to put ourselves on the world stage and perform as well as we can."
Khadka's Nepal team is actually used to supporters thronging the stands - "almost like a Test-playing country" is how describes the attention - and there has been a festival atmosphere in their home country since qualification. Beyond the world of televised cricket, the internet has played an important role in spreading the game, something which is particularly true of Nepal and their dedicated online following.
"Every time I log on to my Facebook or Twitter page, there are messages from people saying we need to do well, encouraging us," Khadka said. "We want to do well, make a mark for the generations to follow. Nepal is heading in the right direction in terms of fan following, infrastructure, the government is also keen to develop cricket. If we put up a good performance it will only encourage future generations to take up the game.
"People are used to following us on the internet, through social media and ball-by-ball commentary. But this will be a chance to watch the boys live in action...Playing in front of big crowds is something we are used to but this will be different because it's a global audience."
The attention will only increase further if either side can cause an almighty upset and qualify from Group A - even if it would dampen the local enthusiasm by knocking out the hosts. While Nepal have caused ripples substantial enough to lap at the edifice of big cricket, Hong Kong's recent success has been less heralded. Confidence has soared after beating Zimbabwe in their opening warm-up match and the rewards for continuing their run could be greater than winning itself.
"I think if you look at most sports around the world and in countries where a particular sport is popular, it is usually due to success of the team," Atkinson said. "If we keep having success, particularly on this world stage, it's definitely going to raise the profile back in Hong Kong. So success is key, over the next few games in this group stage it's vital that we put up some good performances and show the rest of Hong Kong, the rest of the world how good we are."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Alan Gardner
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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