(Scroll.in) Hong Kong T20 blitz: How cricket fanatics are fighting to keep the sport alive in the territory

This article was published in Scroll.in on March 8, 2017

On Sunday mornings, whatever the weather, a group of boys grab their bats and run out of their homes to go play cricket with ‘Imran Sir’. There’s no proper field in the neighborhood, so they play where they can find space. In this case, it’s a patch of land above a water tank that doubles up as a soccer field. There’s nothing unusual about this style of community cricket, except for one thing. They’re playing in a city that pays very little attention to the game: Hong Kong.

“That may be the case,” says Imran Idrees, originally from Pakistan, now a cricket coach in Hong Kong, “But for this group, (pointing to the ten boys doing batting drills) it’s in their blood.” We inherit our love for cricket,” Idrees adds.

And so, it’s fallen on a group of cricket fanatics in Hong Kong – children, parents, coaches, players and team owners – most of them South Asian, to fight a desperate battle to keep cricket alive in the territory.

Though the first recorded cricket match was played in the colony in the 1840s, cricket has never been Hong Kong’s game. There are only 800 registered players in the densely populated city of 7 million and almost all the players are South Asian, British or Australian.

“It’s a bit of an unknown,” says Tim Cutler, the 34-year-old Australia born CEO of Cricket Hong Kong. “It has a long history of being known as an expat sport.”

The Chinese haven’t taken to it, preferring to concentrate on the globally popular sports of football and rugby instead. Locals are so befuddled by the sport, the official website of Hong Kong Cricket has a ‘What is Cricket’ section with a handy video explaining, among other things, the 11 different ways to get a batsman out. To the locals, it’s just too complicated.

“It wont be, if we expose them to it,” says Urvashi Sethi Sodhi, one of the forces behind the T20 Blitz, a Hong Kong cricket league, the second edition of which starts on March 8. Its five teams boast of an impressive roster of overseas players for such a young tournament. Pakistani heavyweight Shahid Afridi and England fast bowler Tymal Mills will play for the Kowloon Cantons franchise part owned by Sodhi – and eight other women and a man. The owners of all five franchises are South Asian.

The participation of high profile international players has created a great buzz around the sport in Hong Kong. The challenge however, will be to pack the stadiums. Sodhi admits the audience numbers ‘were in the hundreds’ last year though online viewership was much higher. The tournament is hoping to draw greater numbers this year. This would be a lot easier and a lot more lucrative if the local Chinese community was excited about it. Even better, if they played it.

A big obstacle is accessibility. Space is a premium plus the topography of the island means there simply aren’t enough fields. There is just one ground approved by the International Cricket Council for international tournaments.

“In India or Australia, people are playing cricket all around and it’s easy to join a team. Here you don’t see kids playing it. You have to seek it out,” says Cutler who isn’t waiting around for locals to come to cricket grounds. He’s taking cricket to them instead. Last year, he introduced a fast track Junior Sixes cricket program in a dozen local Chinese schools and says the response has been terrific.

The Junior Sixes is an offshoot of the Hong Kong Sixes – a popular cricket tournament that returns to the territory this year after a four year gap. Like the T20 Blitz, it’s a simplified, short and fast version of cricket which new audiences should find easier to understand than the traditional format of the game.

“Chalo, chalo, lets play,” shouts Imran Sir to his group of boys as he resumes his training session. But there’s one more thing, he has to say before I lose him to the makeshift pitch again. “In South Asia, parents think their kids can have a great future playing cricket because they’ve had role models in an Imran Khan or Sachin Tendulkar. There are no sports heroes here for kids to look up to.”

What Hong Kong does have – despite the lack of facilities, scant Chinese interest and a step sport status compared to other sports – is an impressive national cricket team. The men’s team currently stands at number 14 in world T20 rankings making it Hong Kong’s highest ranking major sports team internationally.

“The quality is extremely good for the number of people that play it, it,” says Sodhi, whose son is in the national squad, a pool of 25 players that feeds Hong Kong’s national team.

“It’s a small community but a proud community,” says Cutler of cricket in Hong Kong. “If we could get more of the locals to join us, it could really bring the territory together over a common love.”

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