Feature

Hong Kong's motley crew makes big sacrifices to keep the dream alive

A team of delivery drivers, businessmen, a student, and fathers who haven't met their newborn children prepare to play mighty India

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
30-Aug-2022
Kinchit Shah, like others in the Hong Kong team, earns his livelihood from outside cricket; he's in the jewellery trade  •  International Cricket Council

Kinchit Shah, like others in the Hong Kong team, earns his livelihood from outside cricket; he's in the jewellery trade  •  International Cricket Council

Hong Kong have been on the road so much of late that Babar Hayat, Ehsan Khan and Yasim Murtaza have all become fathers while away, and have only seen their newborns over video calls.
Over the last three months, they've stopped in Namibia, Uganda and Jersey [for ICC events], South Africa and England [preparatory tours], Zimbabwe [for the T20 World Cup qualifiers], Oman [for the Asia Cup qualifiers], and now in the UAE for the Asia Cup, where they will play India and Pakistan in the group stage of the competition. The players are aware that there's no real path to financial gain or a big-time future in the game here, but are a determined and committed lot nevertheless.
While players from the more established countries can afford to take time off, the Hong Kong players would rather not; they live for this.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong will play India. They haven't played India or Pakistan in four years, and have no idea when they will face them again. When they last played India, at the 2018 Asia Cup, Hong Kong gave their superstar opponents a mighty scare. Wednesday presents them with a chance for an encore, or better.
They are a motivated bunch of cricketers, but one of Trent Johnston's challenges as head coach has been to ensure they don't burn out after three months of non-stop cricket, coming as it has on the back of the Covid-19 lull.
"A majority of our squad have to earn a living outside of what they get from Cricket Hong Kong, who have been very supportive despite no cricket for more than two years. But we only have a certain amount of time with the players and have to maximise that"
Trent Johnston, Hong Kong coach
"There were probably six lockdowns. We didn't have training for over a year. The boys were doing their strength and conditioning sessions over Zoom, from their homes, car park and local parks," Johnston, the former Ireland captain, told ESPNcricinfo. "The commitment they've shown has been phenomenal. They never questioned anything or complained but have just got on with it.
"I'm pleased for the whole group that we put in three good games [against Singapore, Kuwait and UAE at the Asia Cup qualifiers] in Oman and now have an opportunity to play India and Pakistan."
Losing cricket time, as a result of the pandemic, was especially tough for the players who continue to try and find a balance between pursuing their passion and doing their regular salary-earning work.
"Three or four players do private coaching, either at a cricket club or one-on-one coaching," Johnston said. "A high percentage of the boys are delivery drivers with Food Panda or Deliveroo. Kinchit Shah, the vice-captain, is in the jewellery trade. Scott McKechnie has his own business that offers him a slight flexibility to come on out as long as he has internet. Young Ayush [Shukla], our opening bowler, is in university. A couple of guys are doing administration.
"So all of them have sacrificed a lot over the past three months to come over and play cricket. I can't thank their families enough. The wives and girlfriends, kids that are waiting for their dad to come back. Not one guy in the team has told me they have to go home. Their partners have been phenomenal and kept the house moving, I thank them a hell of a lot."
All of it has been a challenge; off the field of play, expanding their pool of players, especially. Bringing players to a certain level of proficiency and then losing them to education or a full-time profession has been, perhaps, the biggest obstacle.
Take some of the players that were around during the Asia Cup four years ago.
Christopher Carter, the wicketkeeper-batter, left to attend flight school in Australia and is currently a pilot with Cathay Pacific.
Jamie Atkinson, a former captain, is a PE teacher at a private school.
Anshy Rath, their captain in that tournament, has moved to India, hoping to establish a career in the domestic set-up and the IPL as a local player with the use of his Indian passport.
Mark Chapman, whose parents lived and worked in Hong Kong, grew up playing amid the high-rises. His father, Peter, a New Zealander, was the crown prosecutor for the Hong Kong government; his mother, Anne, a Chinese woman, worked in the lucrative finance sector. Chapman came through the age-group system in Hong Kong and made the national team before leaving for college in Auckland. The access to a first-class system, the best facilities and better pay, made his decision easy. He has played for both Hong Kong and New Zealand internationally, and is now with the New Zealand A squad in India.
"For me, as coach, working with players on an area of their game and then being able to see them execute them in games under pressure, that is what I get a buzz out of"
Trent Johnston
"The expat community - you have kids who come through the pathways and then go off to school somewhere else. Carter and Jamie are available to play for us, but it's limited. A majority of our squad have to earn a living outside of what they get from Cricket Hong Kong," Johnston explained. "Cricket Hong Kong have been very supportive despite no cricket for more than two years. But we only have a certain amount of time with the players and have to maximise that.
"They also have a living to make because Hong Kong is probably the second dearest city in the world [the dearest, for expats, according to an ECA International study]. Many of them are trying to send money back home to Pakistan. I try and get the maximum out of what I can, and they get the maximum out of what they need to do to support their families."
When the national team isn't on tour, Johnston, who is now a Hong Kong resident too, charts their progress route. "We have the Under-16s and Under-19s that form our pathway programmes," Johnston said. "We now have an Under-18 team heading to Oman for the Asia Cup qualifiers at the end of the month. We have quite a bit of infrastructure and participation from the cubs.
"There are now five or six Chinese teams that play in various leagues. Our Premier League is now a five-team structure [as compared to three earlier], which is probably right. From the player pool point of view, you're looking at choosing from 20 players tops if everyone is available, [accounting for] guys working and those sorts of things.
"We don't have a lot of players to choose from, but that has its advantages and disadvantages. If you've got guys unavailable or injured, you go to the next tier and bring on a guy who may be young and not ready but have to play them. It also gives you narrow focus, and you can concentrate on them, It is what it is, we can't create players or bring players in. We just work with what we've got.
"We've got two spinners, Ehsan Khan and Yamin, in their mid-30s, we have two fast bowlers, 19 and 22, and an experienced batting line-up. They [at the board] are working in operations and high performance, trying to enhance those structures. The women's side of things is very good, consists mainly of local players and a mix of expats. The pathways from women's point of view is up and running, so there are a lot of positives at the moment, and the next two games are only going to add to that."
At the Asia Cup, Johnston is realistic about Hong Kong's chances and will measure progress through his own prism.
"For me, as coach, working with players on an area of their game and then being able to see them execute them in games under pressure, that is what I get a buzz out of," he said. "The last three games in Oman, we got most enjoyment out of it.
"We missed out in the T20 World Cup qualifiers 2019 in UAE despite having Oman on the racks. Last week [at the qualifiers], against UAE, we were ruthless enough to get the win. To see the smile on their faces after the UAE game, you probably don't see scenes like that unless you win a World Cup.
"It means a lot to the guys, given the sacrifice they've put in. Now to be able to play India and Pakistan, they deserve to be here. We're not just going to turn up and be the whipping boys. We're going to try and cause an upset or two while we're here."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo