ASIA CUP 2018
“It’s an honour and a privilege to play against the legends of the game.” – Rath © Getty
Anshuman Rath is keeping his fellow captains waiting, but not necessarily in a Sourav Ganguly way of mind games at the toss. He just happens to be the last one to turn up at the captains’ press address. Sitting to his left, Angelo Mathews welcomes him with a smile, to which there’s a very brief reciprocation. Rath seems nervous and hardly at ease. But then again, not too often does a 20-year-old captain from Hong Kong get a place on a dais alongside full member leaders, in front of a large contingent of journalists and a busy brigade of photographers jostling for space.
Rohit Sharma is at the centre of the setup, as far as seating and questions are concerned. Rest of the captains are looking at him sometimes as he gives lengthy answers, but Rath isn’t. He’s either mostly staring straight into space or looking around, surveying the big room that he finds himself in. There’s an odd question that gets a summing up from Sarfraz Ahmed, and Rath nods. The rest perhaps agree too but the only head that shakes in the affirmative is Rath’s.
When the time comes to answer his first question – and his last – there’s sincerity: “I think all of us are very excited to be here. It’s an honour and a privilege to play against the legends of the game. We’re just going to take it game by game, we’re hungry, we worked hard to get here. We’ll keep trying and trying to impress the world.”
Hong Kong’s arrival at the Asia Cup for the third time [previously in 2004 and 2008] is not just the result of a successful Qualifiers tournament that culminated at a nervy one-wicket win in the final. The seeds of forward strides were sown good two years ago.
“Two years ago we turned professional. This [Asia Cup] is really the result of that hard work. The guys have started playing more and more consistent cricket. That’s reflected in our third place finish in the WCL. These games have come around now, when we’re in a much better position than we would’ve been in 2008, when it was very much an amateur team turning up and having a bit of a crack. It was almost like guys were star struck,” Hong Kong head coach Simon Cook tells Cricbuzz.
“Whereas now it is actually, turn out and perform their skills. They know that if they can repeat, repeat, repeat their skills as often as they can, they can be there and thereabouts. But that’s the challenge, and that’s the difference between the best players in the world and the associate cricketers in a way – we’ve just got to learn to repeat our skills more and more often under really intense pressure. Whether it’s physical pressure that is the conditions, or the crowd pressure… facing up against better bowlers in the world, or running up and bowling to Rohit Sharma who has got tremendous record in ODI cricket.”
The sheer quality of their two opponents in the coming week notwithstanding, the way forward for Cook has been to make his players realise and believe that they are one of the top six Asian sides, and are playing at the same level as the rest. But shedding the sense of inferiority is easier said than done. The 17-member squad has as many as nine players under the age of 23, and one of them leading the team. Moreover, the cumulative experience of the entire squad is 174 ODIs, nine short of the number of games that Rohit Sharma alone has featured in, and 92 fewer than how many Shoaib Malik has played.
“Going professional has been part of that process in terms of trying to instill those same values and also trying to give them a sense that they’re playing at the same level all the time. For the contracted players, it’s quite easy. We’ve got quite a few guys who aren’t contracted, coming on tour for the second or third time… it’s quite difficult with those.
“They’re walking around the hotel and they’re bumping into their heroes. So trying to just reign them back in a little bit is quite tough. But it is about trying to get through to them that they’re on the same level. We’re playing an international tournament, we’re in next door dressing room, we’re in the same hotel. Everything is on parity, you need to basically be treating yourself as though you were on par with them.”
Hong Kong’s Asia Cup story is far more worthy after what they had to endure earlier this year. After gaining their ODI status in 2014 and doing well to hold onto it for four years, they were stripped off it following one poor week in the World Cup qualifiers. That leaves them with the two matches in the Asia Cup – against India and Pakistan – as their last two ODIs before another long wait until they can try and reclaim it through the same tournament where they lost it. They’ve also had to deal with the misery of missing out ever-so-narrowly on a berth in the 13-team ODI league starting in 2020.
“We played two-and-a-half years of good cricket. We have one bad week in Zimbabwe in the qualifiers, we end up losing quite a significant status,” Cook says. But with a young core at their behest, there’s still a way to spot faint traces of a silver lining amidst all the gloom.
“That is frustrating, but also a motivating factor. We tend to go in cycles, So you’ve a four year cycle in World Cup qualifiers. Netherlands did the same thing in the last Qualifiers in New Zealand. They remodelled themselves and came back very strongly. We’re going to do the same thing. Fortunately, the thing with us is that we’ve got a young group. So we’re only going to lose maybe 3 or 4 players out of this group who won’t be playing the qualifiers in three years time. That’s a really really positive, we have our core.”
Banking on the uncertainties of cricket aside, Cook hopes each of his players feels he couldn’t have done more in both the upcoming fixtures. There’s also a clear message of not doing something different from what they pulled off so successfully at the Asia Cup qualifiers in Malaysia.
“As long as they walk off the field knowing they’ve done everything they can to be the best they can be, they can hold their heads up high.”
Rath’s got his head up too. It’s taken him about eight minutes to rest his nerves in the surroundings, but there’s a smile now as cameramen position themselves in the middle and click away to glory. For one week at least, he knows he belongs, and so does Hong Kong.