By Anand Vasu in Chittagong
Playing televised cricket marks a big step up for the associate nations and life could change forever for the winning side
The last time anyone counted, 36.45% of Nepal’s 27 million citizens had a television at home. There might be good reason to update that 2011 census in a couple of weeks, as the most recent addition to the list of cricket-crazy countries takes in the experience having the exploits of their stars beamed into their living rooms.
For most international cricketers, playing in front of cameras is second nature. Over the years, the demand for cricket on television in traditional markets – England, India, Australia and beyond – has grown so rapidly that it is unthinkable that one of these teams could be involved in a game that was not televised. For the likes of Nepal and Hong Kong, nothing could be further from the truth.
For the best part of their careers, players from associate nations go about their work in relative anonymity. The arrival of the Internet, and the subsequent ease of access to the web through mobile phones, has been a game changer in many ways, allowing the man on the street in Nepal or Hong Kong to follow his team even when they were playing in a qualifying tournament in Bermuda or Abu Dhabi. But it’s one thing to be able to read a score, and another entirely to actually see for yourself how your team is playing.
“It’s massive for us, we haven’t had the opportunity that many times in the past to play in front of the television cameras. I know the lads would like to take that opportunity, when we have [played in televised matches] in the past, people tend to raise their game because they realise how many people are watching,” said Jamie Atkinson, captain of the Hong Kong team. “It’s a massive opportunity to put themselves in the shop window. I know a lot of the associate players, in this tournament, are thinking a couple of good performances individually can put themselves on the world map as well and try to get their careers furthered."
For Paras Khadka, the articulate captain of the Nepal team, the situation was no different. “People back home are very excited because it will be a new experience for most of them. People are used to following us on the Internet, through social media and ball-by-ball commentary. But this will be a chance to watch the boys live in action,” he said. “Every time I log on to my Facebook or Twitter page, there are messages from people saying we need to do well, encouraging us despite the losses in the last two matches.”
The Nepal team enjoys a spirited following online, and the excitement back home has just about reached fever pitch as the team embarks on its first adventure at the global level. “From the time we qualified it’s been like a festival back home. It’s been crazy. Everybody is excited, and for us, as players, it’s a great opportunity for all the players to make a name for yourself, make a name for your country,” said Khadka. “We will do whatever we can to try and win as many games as possible. We will try and push for a better result every time we play.”
While there has been significant interest in the Nepal media over their team’s progress – as many as 14 journalists from the country are over in Chittagong shadowing their team – Hong Kong’s players have not always enjoyed the kind of support they would have liked. Atkinson knows what needs to be done for that to change. “If you look at most sports around the world and in countries where a particular sport is popular, it is usually due to success of the team. If we keep having success, particularly on this world stage, it’s definitely going to raise the profile back in Hong Kong,” said Atkinson.
“So, success is key, I think over the next couple of games we have, in this group stage, it’s vital that we put up some good performances and show the rest of Hong Kong, the rest of the world how good we are. The games will be broadcast across the world so people can actually see the standard of cricket that’s being played at the moment by the associates. I think over the last couple of games people are realising that the gap [between associates and Test nations] is beginning to close.”
Matches in Nepal have drawn crowds of close to 15,000, so the presence of a crowd would not necessarily put Khadka’s men off their game, but he did acknowledge that the games over the next week would be significantly different from anything they had experienced in the past in at least two ways. “Playing in front of big crowds is something we are used to, but the day-night structure is a bit different. Also, this will be different because it’s a global audience,” said Khadka, whose team played a couple of warm-up matches under lights in Dubai to get used to the day-night experience.
Khadka, who described Nepal’s fan following as being “just like a Test nation’s”, more than once underscored the need for his team-mates to remind themselves not to get too caught up in the hype. “As players, we are excited, but we need to control our emotions as well. We need to play the cricket we have learnt, not go overboard,” he pointed out. “People have always had high hopes and expectations. Right now cricket in Nepal is in very good shape in terms of support, the government, people committing to game, the corporate sector getting involved … but as players we can’t think about the crowd or what people are saying back home. You just have to go out there and play it as a game of cricket, and make sure you do what you have to, to make your country win.”
That will be easier said than done, given that the ICC World Twenty20 2014 is set to break all cricket broadcasting records, with an estimated 1.8 billion viewers expected to take in the action via 29 broadcast partners.
When the lights come on at Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong on Sunday, even before a ball is bowled, Nepal and Hong Kong would have taken giant strides in popularising the game back home. And, for the winner, life could change forever.