Asia Cup participation highlights the ironies of Hong Kong's ODI existence
The tournament will be a high point of a bizarre year in which the team has lost its ODI status while also securing famous wins against Afghanistan, UAE and Nepal in the 50-overs format
St Patrick's Day is a quirky date on the calendar in the annals of Associate history. In 2007, the day was marked by a famous Irish win in Jamaica over Pakistan that served as a catalyst for Ireland's inexorable march to Test status. Eleven years later, Hong Kong experienced the bizarre dichotomy of having their participation in the 4000th ODI against Papua New Guinea trumpeted in an ICC press release with the knowledge that it may be their last such match for at least four years.
Four years of hard grind to keep ODI status won in 2014 was undone in the matter of two weeks in Zimbabwe this past March. It didn't matter that Hong Kong could have secured a spot in the 13-team ODI League beginning in 2020 had they been able to win either WCL Championship contest against the Netherlands in 2017 that they only narrowly lost.
The Dutch had been in Hong Kong's shoes four years earlier. One win in the 2011-13 WCL Championship was what separated them and Afghanistan from an automatic berth in the 2015 World Cup. Netherlands wound up one spot back, forced to go to the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand where one bad week, and one bad loss to Kenya, saw their ODI status wiped out in an instant.
But the Dutch had also laid a blueprint for Hong Kong on how to bounce back from such a devastating result. It was only two months after the Dutch debacle in New Zealand that they pulled off one of the greatest chases in any format, smashing 193 in 13.5 overs on a legendary night in Sylhet to leapfrog Ireland into the main draw of the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh.
Last month in Malaysia, a young Hong Kong side showed that what happened in Zimbabwe need not be the end of the world for them either. Under new captain Anshuman Rath, Hong Kong reeled off four straight wins against Singapore, UAE, Nepal and then UAE once more in a final rematch to earn a place in Group A of the main Asia Cup draw against India and Pakistan, thus highlighting one of the great ironies of Hong Kong's ODI existence.
If playing in the Asia Cup were an opportunity afforded only to teams with ODI status, then Hong Kong would have been locked out in favor of UAE and Nepal, teams they scored a trio of wins against at the qualifier in Malaysia.
In the four years Hong Kong held official ODI status from 2014 to 2018, the only two ODIs they played against Full Members took place in the final week that they held the status, against Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. They won the first of those two encounters, demonstrating their capabilities if only given an opportunity.
Now that they've lost their ODI status, they'll be playing the same amount of ODIs against Test nations in the space of one week as they had in the preceding four years by virtue of the ICC's decree that all matches at the Asia Cup will have ODI status in spite of the lack of such status currently held by Hong Kong. It's also their third appearance in the Asia Cup, following up on 2004 and 2008, the only other opportunities they've ever had to play ODI cricket.
Hong Kong's performance at the Asia Cup Qualifier once again demonstrates the beauty of meritocracy through qualifying on the field of play rather than having opportunities dished out according to administrative status labels. If playing in the Asia Cup were an opportunity afforded only to teams with ODI status, then Hong Kong would have been locked out in favor of UAE and Nepal, teams they scored a trio of wins against at the qualifier in Malaysia.
The same held true during the Asia Cup T20 Qualifier in 2016. Prior to the staging of that tournament, three Asian Associates - Afghanistan, Oman and Hong Kong - had all qualified for the World T20 that was to follow a month later in India. But UAE was invited to participate as a fourth team courtesy of their T20I status and despite having missed out on the World T20 managed to trump that Asian associate trio to advance to the main draw of the Asia Cup T20, and in the process gave a serious scare to Sri Lanka. It was yet another instance showcasing the depth and strength of Associates in the region.
Hong Kong's qualification also provides evidence that the countries' development programs are indeed bearing fruit and deserve more investment from the ICC in spite of their lack of ODI status. Many casual observers fall into the habit of lazily looking at the names on paper and assume the squad is made up of washed up imports from other countries.
The truth is that regardless of their ethnic heritage, the majority of the squad has come through Hong Kong's Under-19 junior squads, including 20-year-old Rath. This is not a recent phenomenon either as the last remaining holdover from their 2004 Asia Cup debut is 30-year-old left-arm spinner Nadeem Ahmed, who made his debut as a 16-year-old in that tournament against Pakistan. In addition to English and Urdu, Nadeem speaks fluent Cantonese as well, underscoring his strong connection to the local Hong Kong Chinese culture that he was raised in.
More than anything, though, Hong Kong just want the opportunity to show they belong. They'll still be overwhelming underdogs to make it out of group play. But as Ireland showed the world against Pakistan in 2007, stranger things have happened.
According to the Chinese zodiac calendar, 2018 is the year of the dog. Hong Kong have already demonstrated against Afghanistan's superstar spin trio of Rashid, Mujeeb and Nabi that their bark is backed up by a strong bite. And they'll be woofing plenty when they take the field next week against Pakistan and India.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna