A day before the start of the ICC World Twenty20 2014, already heralded as a blockbuster by ubiquitous hoardings that welcome you at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, a contrast unique to global tournaments of this kind unfolded. In Dhaka, a flurry of interviews and press conferences lifted the curtain, with the superstars of this blockbuster taking centre stage. Players from India, Pakistan and New Zealand fronted up, even as the hosts underwent its final practice session ahead of the first match, a game in which Bangladesh will hope to spark the tournament to life with a win over Afghanistan, who beat it recently in the Asia Cup.
While Dhaka enjoyed its time as the centre of the cricketing universe, the south-eastern port city of Chottogram, better known to the Western world as Chittagong, placidly prepared for its own start of the tournament. While little or no marketing material shouts out loud about the Nepal-Hong Kong match at the Zahur Ahmed Choudhury Stadium that will follow the tournament opener on Sunday (March 16), the match will be a huge one for the two teams in question.
Cricket has been played in Hong Kong since 1866, shortly after the British introduced the game to a predominantly Chinese island. Nepal, relative newcomers to the game, having first taken up the willow up in the Himalayas in 1996, has more to prove.
Leading the Nepal brigade is Paras Khadka, who dominated the qualifying tournament with both bat and ball. “I think we are here to present Nepal cricket in front of the whole world,” said Khadka upon arrival in Bangladesh. Nepal, who lost its warm-up matches to Ireland and the United Arab Emirates, has no choice but to come hard at the opposition in the first round. “It is a great opportunity for us. It is not like we have only qualified for this tournament and worked for three months. We have been playing for ten to 12 years with hard work and playing continuous cricket. We are here to compete and play to the best of our ability. If we play to our potential, things should be good for us.”
Nepal’s enemy is its own inexperience, not merely in terms of the age of its players — none of them has yet celebrated his 30th birthday – but also in terms of appearance in major events. Having risen to the top of the qualifiers in UAE late last year, the ICC World T20 2014 is Nepal’s first appearance at a global tournament.
If there is one similarity between Nepal, a landlocked mountain kingdom, and Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan island enclosed by the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea, it is the place cricket holds in the minds of the public. Although the enthusiasm for the game is undeniable among those who play it against all odds, the sport struggles to hold its own against football in both countries. Hong Kong’s players have long lamented the lack of media attention to cricket back home, and this tournament provides a chance to focus the spotlight on the game.
While Nepal have chosen to empower youth in their campaign, Hong Kong have taken the road of pragmatism, recalling two veterans in Munir Dar (41) and Najeeb Amar (42), while still retaining a core of youngsters.
Dar, who is expected to play a pivotal role with the bat, cannot bowl because of problems with his action, but this is where Najeeb comes in, with his canny left-arm spin. It will be interesting to see if Kinchit Shah, who recently turned 18, gets picked to bowl his offbreaks alongside Najeeb, for the age gap between the two – a staggering 24 years – gives fresh meaning to the cricketing cliché of blending youth and experience.
Hong Kong goes into its match against Nepal on a high, having stunned much stronger Zimbabwe and Netherlands teams in its warm-up matches.
Even as the game’s superpowers polish strategies and prime its stars, a desperate struggle is set to unfold in Chittagong. For Nepal and Hong Kong, a rare chance beckons to put their respective countries on the cricketing world map.
Hong Kong: Jamie Atkinson (capt, wk), Waqas Barqat, Aizaz Khan, Babar Hayat, Mark Chapman, Ehsan Nawaz, Haseeb Amjad, Irfan Ahmed, Roy Lamsam, Munir Dar, Nadeem Ahmed, Najeeb Amar, Nizakat Khan, Kinchit Shah, Tanwir Afzal.
Nepal: Paras Khadka (capt), Pradeep Airee, Binod Bhandari, Amrit Bhattarai, Naresh Budayair, Shakti Gauchan, Avinash Karn, Subash Kakurel (wk), Gyanendra Malla, Jitendra Mukhiya, Basant Regmi, Sagar Pun, Sompal Kami, Sharad Vesawkar, Rahul Vishwakarma.