A narrow lane separates Hong Kong Softball Association and the Mission Road Ground (also known as the Tin Kwong Road Recreation Ground). Workers stayed busy on Sunday covering up the entrance of the Mission Road Ground with T20 Blitz cut outs. Meanwhile, two elderly gentlemen of Chinese descent walking through the lane stopped by to watch a softball match between a local side and a visiting team from Japan.

Softball match in progress © Suvajit Mustafi
Softball match in progress © Suvajit Mustafi

The men then looked at the decorated gate of the cricket ground that had an image of Kumar Sangakkara wielding his bat. The men tried drawing parallels between the sports, both of which involved a bat, a ball, a helmet and other protective gears. I didn’t have to be an expert in Cantonese to decode the conversation. One gentleman was more animated as he explained through action that softball is underarm whereas cricket is overarm (he actually rolled over his arm). The other man looked convinced.

The entry gate at Mission Road Ground © Suvajit Mustafi
The entry gate at Mission Road Ground © Suvajit Mustafi

I smiled and that caught the attention of the first gentleman who beamed back and asked, “India, right?”

“Yes. Mumbai. Bombay”

Pointing to the poster that had Sanga playing a stylish stroke, he said, “Cricket. Big. Very famous sport in India. You must be famous.”

I did not mind being mistaken for a cricketer. Cricket maybe the second-most followed sport in the world, but the increase in popularity is not due to its reach but the vast population of south Asia.

I realised that the recognition of the game was here in Hong Kong over a period of three days. That was pleasant. During my stint in Shanghai, my utterance of cricket as a sport would be interpreted as the sport of cricket fighting, one of China’s favourite pastimes.

Mission Road Ground © Suvajit Mustafi
Mission Road Ground © Suvajit Mustafi

***

Mong Kok district that nestles the international cricket venue Mission Road Ground is amongst the most densely populated regions in the world. Reportedly, it once attained the density of 1,30,000 people per square kilometre. However, place a Virat Kohli or Shahid Afridi at the ever-bustling Langham Place and mobbed is the last thing that you would think of. These megastars would pass by as the one per cent of Hong Kong’s population.

Mong Kok area in Hong Kong (Image courtesy: AFP)
Mong Kok area in Hong Kong (Image courtesy: AFP)

92 per cent of Hong Kong’s population is ethnic Chinese, but cricket continues to be a sport of the south Asian expatriates, of course with an English and Australian touch to it.

Hong Kong has a rich cricketing history, but it has a lot to do to take it to most households, bringing in Chinese audience and players.

Cricket Hong Kong is certainly doing its bit and success of T20 Blitz is there to be seen.

***

Hong Kong’s rich cricket history dates back to the days under British Empire, as long back as 1841, when the first cricket match to be played here was recorded. In 1866, Hong Kong and Shanghai played their first Interport match. In one of sports’ greatest tragedies, the Hong Kong cricket team lost its 11 members when SS Bokhara, a P&O steamship, sank on its return voyage from Shanghai after another Interport match. The incident saw loss of 125 lives.

***

Hans Ebert, Chairman and CEO of We-Enhance Inc, writes in one of his columns at Fasttrack, “In colonial Hong Kong, cricket was right up there when it came to popular sports.”

He adds, “Cricket was certainly more popular than tennis and with almost every Secondary school fielding at least two teams: first eleven and second eleven. There were also the local cricket clubs: the Templars, The Optimists, the Indian Recreation Club, Craigengower Cricket Club, Little Sai Wan, each playing in the first division and the minnows in the second division. Former bantamweight boxer Billy Tingle gave up his time to teach youngsters the game.

“For some of us, playing cricket on a Saturday- even school cricket- was a way of life. It was a far more simple time and Hong Kong was a vastly different city to what it is today.”

For an outsider, Hong Kong and cricket were always a pair. Ask this 90s kid. In the pre-T20 era, the Hong Kong Cricket Sixes were the must-watch events. In many ways it was the forerunner of short form cricket.

Though Erbet’s article questions the benefit of the T20 Blitz as it does not address the situation at the grassroots, the tournament has put Hong Kong on the cricketing map in terms of viewership.

More than 11 million online views were recorded for the 2017 edition. This year organisers hope to attract around 30 million television viewers from its potential reach of 175 million. DD Sports will be broadcasting the event live to India.

Twenty20 cricket has bridged the gaps between Full Members and Associate Nations, and brought in more eyeballs. The local players definitely benefit when they end up rubbing shoulders and sharing dugouts with stars of repute.

***

Hong Kong T20 Blitz 2018

On the eve of the event, a cocktail party and a press conference was held at Spiga, located at posh Central. Lost in the maze of the vertical city, an unexpected help arrived.

A gentleman of South Asian origin waved at me near on the streets. He mistook me for some acquaintance of his. Nevertheless I found someone who could guide me to the venue. The jacket bore the name ‘Hung Hom JD Jaguars’ and I identified that he was among the players in T20 Blitz.

He introduced himself, “I am Nadeem Ahmed.”

The Pakistan-born Nadeem is Hong Kong’s premier left-arm spinner with 33 wickets from 19 ODIs at 21.30 and 25 wickets in T20Is at 21.84 and an incredible economy rate of 6.61.

An international cricketer introducing himself on the streets was a first-time experience.

The galaxy of stars, franchise owners, the sponsors and the who’s who of Hong Kong’s cricketing fraternity were at the event.

KPMG’s Michael Camerlengo addressed the gathering on behalf of the sponsors, “We are really pleased to be involved again after the success of last year’s event. Sport is important to KPMG. We support many different sports and we’re really pleased to maintain our involvement with this tournament.

We think that cricket is a powerful means to unite society.

“Seeing some of the world’s best players playing alongside Hong Kong’s finest is an inspiration to everyone who is getting into the game.”

Jonathan Cummings, Honorary Secretary, Cricket Hong Kong, said, “The significance of the Hong Kong T20 Blitz is growing and it is getting noticed.

The progress we’ve made in just three years is just phenomenal. Cricket is this great connector. This event does a lot to bring together those from traditional cricketing communities with many others who are perhaps less familiar with the game.

Two-time World T20 winning captain Darren Sammy, who will be playing for the Jaguars, spoke on behalf of the overseas players, “Last year was really exciting, and the Hong Kong T20 is clearly something that’s growing and going places.  That’s why you see so many great players here this year.Hopefully, we the internationals can come and impart our knowledge.”

Sammy, who arrived in Hong Kong a day before, hinted that he would have liked more time ahead of the tournament to prepare. Also, how it’s a hectic schedule for the freelance T20 cricketers. Sammy is coming fresh from his home in St Lucia after fatherhood touched upon him again.

To this, Alan Wilkins joked, “When do you get time to have some many children?”

“That’s the time I sleep,” replied Sammy as the audience broke into laughter.

Alan Wilkins (left) shares a joke with Darren Sammy © Suvajit Mustafi
Alan Wilkins (left) shares a joke with Darren Sammy © Suvajit Mustafi

The bad news

BBL sensation and Sussex all-rounder Jofra Archer, who bagged a whopping INR 7.2 crore from Rajasthan Royals in IPL Auctions 2018, pulled out of the tournament at the last moment due to an injury he sustained in Australia

***

The teams

(As per press release)

City Kaitak are eager to improve on their outstanding performance in 2017 when they reached the final, only to be beaten by a Babar Hayat–inspired Kowloon Cantons – and have the quality to go all the way.

Their overseas contingent comprises West Indies’ Samuel Badree and Rayad Emrit, who proved a popular player at the 2017 event. They are joined by Pakistan’s T20 world-record holder Sohail Tanvir, whose pace-bowling is likely to be a feature of a tournament in which batting usually dominates.

England’s Ravi Bopara and Scotland’s Kyle Coetzer, who sparkled with the bat in 2017, add to the depth of Kaitak, who also boast one of Hong Kong’s best players in Anshuman Rath. Kaitak’s domestic ranks are bolstered by the likes of captain Aizaz Khan, WaqasBarkat, Jamie Atkinson and RaagKapur, among others.

Jaguars, meanwhile, have retained the likes of Sammy in their bid for glory. Jaguars will be relying on Sammy to boost their hopes after winning two matches last year.

The team is skippered by Hong Kong’s Kinchit Shah and have an ace in their sleeve with Nizakat Khan, who scored a century last year, as well as overseas players Ben Laughlin (Australia), RikiWessels (England), Johan Botha (South Africa) and Dutchman Roelof van der Merwe.

City Kaitak are in action again the next day against Hong Kong Island United, who are the sister side of Pakistan’s Islamabad United and feature a strong overseas line-up in Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Irfan and HussainTalat (Pakistan), South African David Wiese, New Zealand’s Luke Ronchi and Ryan ten Doeschate, of the Netherlands.

Former Hong Kong captain Tanwir Afzaal, Chris Carter and Ehsan Khan are all among the local talent available for United.

Defending champions Kowloon Cantons and Galaxy Gladiators Lantau emerge for the first time in the tournament in the second match on Wednesday, February 7.

Kowloon Cantons are hoping for their third straight title and have recruited the ever-reliable Dwayne Smith, along with Pakistani express bowler Wahab Riaz, England’s Samit Patel and Ashar Zaidi and Dutchman Paul van Meekeren.

Cantons have the benefit of fielding one of Hong Kong’s best players in national captain Babar Hayat, who was Man of the Match in last year’s final. Other domestic players include Ehsan Nawaz, Waqas Khan and Ryan Buckley.

Galaxy Gladiators Lantau, though have one of the biggest names in world cricket in Sri Lankan great Kumar Sangakkara who is joined by New Zealand’s James Franklin and Anton Devcich, South African Cameron Deport, England’s Jade Dernbach, and Chetan Suryawanshi.

Archer has withdrawn on the eve of the tournament due to injury. The international contingent will be backed up by local players Karandeep Singh, HaroonA rshad, Imran Arif and Shahid Wasif.

***

cc

Cricket received a chilly welcome at Hong Kong with the temperatures being in single digits. As the week progresses, the weather is expected to be warmer.

Be careful if you are traveling in or around the busy Argyle Street as hard leather balls are expected to rain there.