Have we found another cricket Island Paradise?

Hong Kong and cricket? Peter Miller identifies an unlikely destination for your next holiday tour… 

Cricket tourism is big business. Fans follow their cricket teams all over the world. The passionate and loyal Barmy Army are, by a country mile, the best known of the supporters groups, but they are not the only ones who know how to have a cricketing holiday. There are many wonderful places to visit around the world, with the West Indies, Australia and South Africa amongst the favourite destinations for cricket fans – but what about Hong Kong?

It is not somewhere that cricket fans may have thought of for a visit, but as the dust continues to settle on the second edition of the Hong Kong T20 Blitz, some may consider making the trip. There were world-class players – Darren Sammy, Kumar Sangakkara, Saeed Ajmal, Misbah-ul-Haq and Ian Bell amongst the 25 international players that took part in the event that last five days at the Tin Kwong Road Recreation Ground in Kowloon – and those that paid £9 for a general admission ticket or £130 for a VIP one with unlimited food and drink certainly enjoyed their time.

Hong Kong is an amazing city to visit – a crazy place, but crazy like the girl you had a holiday romance with years ago; the memories of the more bizarre moments are remembered fondly. It is hectic, but the city feels safe. While China can be difficult to navigate, Hong Kong has just enough western sensibility to not jar with the visitor; but it is strange enough to make you feel adventurous. You can spend a fortune on food and hotels or live very frugally. Hong Kong Island is replete with exciting nightlife, Kowloon has night markets and local cuisine.

If Hong Kong isn’t enough for you, there is the ferry to Macau to go to, its casinos, or the train north to Shenzhen, where you can buy near-perfect knock-off of designer handbags, watches and electronics. They may not last, but they look the part.

The cricket itself was of a decent standard. Dwayne Smith, the West Indian who opened the batting for the championship-winning Kowloon Cantons, scored one of the more remarkable hundreds you will see. He smashed a bowling attack that included England’s Chris Jordan for 121 runs from 40 balls, bringing up his hundred from just 31 balls. The games here do not have ‘status’ so the runs don’t count towards a career record, but there has been worse cricket played in T20 tournaments around the world than on display in Mong Kok.

Misbah scored 82 from 37 balls in his first innings, including six successive sixes spread over two overs. He followed that up with 84 from 50 balls in the next match as he challenged his reputation of being a slow scorer. Jordan took nine wickets and made 150 runs in a Man of the Tournament performance. The leading wicket taker was Ajmal, with 11 victims.

But it wasn’t only the overseas stars that succeeded. Anshuman Rath, the 19-year-old batsman who will be leading Hong Kong in the upcoming Emerging Nations tournament in Bangladesh, was hugely impressive. Anshuman was born in Hong Kong but was educated at Harrow, and he is in the process of signing for Middlesex.

Babar Hayat made 188 runs in the tournament, including a match-winning 76 not out in the final. Ashley Caddy, a locally qualified left-arm seam bowler, took a hat-trick in the very first match. Aizaz Khan captained the City Kaitak side and did well with both bat and ball.

As we have seen with Hong Kong winning against Bangladesh in the World T20 in 2014, and when they gained ODI and T20 international status, there is talent within the national set-up. The issue for the country as a whole, and with this tournament going forward, is that there is an absence of depth. There are perhaps 20 players that are good enough to compete at this level, but beyond that there is a big drop-off in ability.

There were one or two players in each team that were, in effect, specialist fielders, occasionally even failing in that regard, but that did not take away from a tournament that was a cricketing and organisational success.

The final was between Kowloon Cantons and City Kaitak, and after five days of close matches it ended up being a one-sided affair. The Cantons won the toss and batted first, going on to set 222-3 from their 20 overs. An opening stand of 149 between Babar and Smith set up a 25-run win as the pitch held up. In T20, especially if you want to draw in a new audience, a good batting surface is needed, and the groundstaff provided that.

Speaking after the event, Cricket Hong Kong’s CEO, Tim Cutler, expressed his delight at how things had gone, but also his excitement about the future of cricket in Hong Kong.

“The Blitz was beyond all of our wildest dreams, for all of the hard work from all of the franchises, staff, volunteers and press that have come, people that have watched online and everyone at the ground. I couldn’t be happier. And yet there is so much room to grow. As excited as I am about the success of our second addition of the Blitz I am looking forward to the next step in Hong Kong cricket even more.”

The organisers of the Blitz want the third season to be even bigger. Cricket Hong Kong spent around £50,000 to broadcast the event live over Facebook and YouTube, and they were rewarded with millions of viewers on both platforms. A TV rights deal was almost signed, but India’s Yusuf Pathan pulling out saw interest die off. But the Blitz has been a success and the hope is that it is here to stay.

So perhaps the next time you are thinking of a cricketing holiday, a trip to the Far East might not be the worst idea you will have…

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, March 24 2017

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