The term "conditions apply" is the most clever way of restricting an offer given to someone in exchange for something else. For Hong Kong, that offer is ODI status exclusively for the Asia Cup. They lost it earlier this year and, in all likelihood, will lose it again on Tuesday after the game against India. But, was the small incentive of playing a couple of ODIs against the big boys enough for Hong Kong, given they were coming into the tournament without consistent exposure to top-flight cricket?
Not long ago, at the World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe, they stunned Afghanistan. So, was there a case for scheduling a series against them and Ireland to test Hong Kong's progress further, instead of just straight on to the Asia Cup Qualifier where Hong Kong were in a battle of equals?
There are many such questions, but precious few answers. Not even those in Hong Kong's cricket administrative circles seem sure of the way forward at present. There will be an ICC meeting in Madrid next month to chart the next leg of the World Cricket League, and Hong Kong, like so many other smaller cricketing nations, will be waiting to see what awaits.
So watching them fold for 116 against a world-class Pakistan attack didn't seem shocking. As such, Pakistan seemingly gained little, Hong Kong's morale was probably sapped, their confidence, shattered. Besides, they probably know that a similar fate awaits them in about 36 hours, against India. Can you blame them for this sad situation? Not really.
What you could blame them for, though, was lazy running. Nizakat Khan was guilty of strolling between the wickets. Midway through, he was left hoping that here wouldn't be a direct hit. Worse still, it came in just the fifth over, long before he should have been badly affected by Dubai's heat. Much later in the innings, Pakistan nearly missed two run-out opportunities off the same ball, but Hong Kong ensured it wasn't so. Ehsan Nawaz and Nadeem Ahmed got stuck mid-pitch, each looking at the other. Then, they both ran back to the same end. While the throw from mid-on didn't hit the stumps, Hasan Ali gathered the ball and hurled it to Sarfraz to run Ehsan out and close the innings. Tame end yes, unexpected no.
In fact, the moment Hong Kong elected to bat, the strictest of security officers, who don't move an inch while on duty and always have their backs to the action while they earnestly survey the stands, smiled and celebrated the possibility of an evening off with full pay. Disrespect, anybody? It may well have been, but even the most optimistic person would have been sceptical of witnessing a competitive game, let alone an upset.
No wonder then that just 300-odd people turned up on the first working day of the week in the UAE, in searing heat, to watch the match. The only tickets still available for the India-Pakistan on Wednesday are corporate boxes that will probably cost a whopping USD 1600. The average rent of a 350 square-foot studio apartment in Kowloon, a Hong Kong suburb, costs just a shade more than that. On Sunday, the same money could have procured 1500 tickets with complimentary meals and beverages. It still wasn't enticing enough for the paying public.
You could argue that Hong Kong had an opportunity to compete, but it would've been a mismatch even if this had been played at Kowloon Cricket Club. Four Pakistan fast bowlers, three of them creating wicked angles across the right-hander from left-arm over the wicket, and then bringing one in as easily as flicking a light switch was - for sure, too hot to handle for a group of batsmen who play four club fixtures across three months back home.
Space constraints leave Hong Kong's cricketers with just five grounds to play in. The number of local teams have increased, leaving huge gaps between matches. So, even if Nizakat Khan made a double-century in his last competitive club game in Hong Kong, his muscle memory wasn't going to be active.
Such gaps between matches are something India crave, but can't get. So, when they got a five-day gap between the England tour and their Asia Cup opener, members of the Test squad dashed home for exactly 48 hours before returning to Dubai. For Hong Kong's cricketers, however, every outing is a blessing, even if it means they play two matches in three days.
So, how can the Asian block help teams like Hong Kong? Is there a case to have them play Pakistan A on these shores, prior to an international series in the UAE? Can India, with all its financial muscle and decision-making powers, help? For example, in the past, England Lions, Sri Lanka A, Zimbabwe A and Bangladesh A have been inducted into the Duleep Trophy, India's zonal first-class tournament, and have benefited from the opportunity.
Even if first-class cricket can't be viable for a side that is still light years away from Test status, can a case be made to include the lesser Asian teams in the Deodhar Trophy, where two representative sides - India A and India B - along with the domestic 50-over champions, compete? Such a decision will not only add context and interest to the tournament, but also give exposure to the smaller teams against decent state-level attacks in a variety of conditions.
As bigger teams in the Asian block, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh owe it to the lesser teams. It may require quite a bit of planning and vision, and will no doubt entail several obstacles to overcome and some sacrifices to be made especially on the financial front. If it does happen, though, there could yet be hope that giant mismatches like today's become fewer and farther apart. For now, these games do no justice to the fans, the teams, or the game's stakeholders.