Neisha Pratt is hoping to lead Hong Kong to success in the ACC Tournament
Just a year after forming - a mere drop in the cricketing ocean - Hong Kong women find themselves among the favourites for the upcoming Asian Cricket Council tournament in Malaysia.
The strongest of the eight teams is Bangladesh, but then again they are a cricketing nation. "They will have a good understanding of the game," says Hong Kong captain Neisha Pratt. "Our girls had never watched it on TV."
Cricket did not surround their childhoods in particular, although some expats in the side - including Pratt, who is from New Zealand - had grown up with the game. But finally, after hundreds of years without women's cricket in the nation, the game suddenly took off after an exhibition match in 2001.
Men have been playing at the Hong Kong Cricket Club since 1851 and it was through celebrating history - with their 150-year anniversary in 2001 - that they created some more. As part of the festivities, the club orchestrated a women's match and so a Hong Kong CC side was formed to play a team cobbled together from Kowloon CC. The players enjoyed the game so much that more friendlies were organised.
A third team came together, made up of female Chinese coaches. They had never even played the game, although coach-training courses had equipped them to introduce cricket into schools and work on development projects.
They became the first 100% Chinese women's team to play competitive cricket and were then subsumed into Lamma CC, along with some expats, when a league formed in 2004, with three teams. There are now six sides in the league.
A national squad then came together last year, to face Pakistan in the World Cup prequalifiers. A few matches have since been played against China, also a relative newcomer. Pakistan was a baptism of fire; they lost each match heavily.
"We were not fit enough or mentally tough enough," says Pratt. "We started well in all matches, then we didn't have enough experience in the middle with so many young girls. Still, it was really quite emotional given the almost total inexperience of the players giving their all in front of 10,000 spectators against Pakistan at Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore."
But the team are making leaps and bounds, thanks in part to some very talented coaches. Many of the senior men's team also help out at training, which takes place three or four times a week.
"It is really unbelievable how much time and effort the men put in to assist us," says Samantha McIlwraith, "But all of the players are highly motivated." McIlwraith is originally from Australia but had never played before Pratt, her friend, asked her to play in Hong Kong.
But while there had been little women's senior cricket, Hong Kong's excellent junior programme, including an inter-primary school league the Wellcome Playground League, had been thriving for a while. That, allied with the newly formed league, is strengthening the game.
Three of the current seniors - Godiva Li, Betty Chan and the rising star Chan Sau Har - came from the junior set-up. "Chan Sau Har is an exciting prospect at the age of 13," says her captain, Pratt. "As a left-arm offspinner, she has amazing control for a young girl."
13-year-old Chan Sau Har is an upcoming star
The language barrier for the side is not really a problem, although it used to be. "It's more a laugh these days," smiles Pratt. "We all know the bad words, main words and if all else fails I simply point or get someone to translate."
Chan Sau Har is the comic relief in the team. "We all love her and each week she says or does something to make everyone laugh, even if it is just listening to her accent (broken English) when she calls something out."
Preparations for the forthcoming tournament have included playing the Under-15 and Under-17 boys. "This has been great," says McIlwraith, "especially batting-wise."
There has been no grass training to date, though, a factor which hampered them in the pre-qualifiers against Pakistan, where they were rolled easily. Pratt says: "Unfortunately our batting was a little fragile as no one apart from Natasha Miles or myself had ever played on grass."
There are more worries - they lose their coach, Lal Jayasinghe, in August. "Lal is amazing," says McIlwraith. "He makes training fun and enjoyable and works personally with every player turning us all into technical players rather than just players."
Without his Level 4 expertise and commitment, Pratt fears for their development. "If they fail to replace him with someone as good I worry things may fall away."
And if they are ever to qualify for the World Cup then Pratt believes that they need to play more than ten games a season for next time. "If this doesn't improve, unfortunately I'd say they won't make it."
But big strides are being made all the time, nevertheless, even in Pakistan. "We had our moments in each match, although the scores are not flattering." And, as they have proven, the Hong Kong players are fast learners.
It is this spirit and dedication which has made Hong Kong one of the favourites for the tournament which kicks off in Malaysia this week. Also, even though their experience is limited, with other such teams as UAE, Singapore and Malaysia in the competition, they are comparative veterans.
And, as Pratt notes, after such a long time without cricket, they have a real chance to put Hong Kong women on the map. "We're hopeful of doing well, setting a high standard and carving out a name for Hong Kong women's cricket internationally, and in Hong Kong."
Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo