February 21, 2017

Emma Lai walks on the grass

The story of the cricket-club waitress who was playing for her national team within a year of picking up a bat for the first time

Emma Lai spreads the gospel Jarrod Kimber / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Outside the TWGHs SC Gaw Memorial College in Hong Kong is a roundabout. It is a raised concrete garden; there are a few trees planted in it, and sparse grass. On that grass is much dog faeces. The sheer logistics of taking your dog out to the middle of a roundabout, getting it to scale a one-metre wall, or hoisting it up there, shows that when it comes to Hong Kong, there isn't much grass.

Inside the school, 70 students are undergoing cricket coaching, learning fielding and throwing. They do it all on a basketball court. They shout, throw, fumble, and love every minute of it. Standing in the middle of the madness, wearing a Cricket Hong Kong training kit, is their coach, Wing Ki Lai, or as her Hong Kong team-mates know her, Emma Lai.

When Lai went to school, girls didn't play sport. PE was only a small part of the curriculum to start with, but when it was taught, the girls' job was to stand in the background and cheer on. The closest she ever got to regular sport was occasionally enjoying the use of a rowing machine.

She also didn't much like school, so instead of going on to university, she went and got a hotel-management diploma, and soon after, she began working as a waitress. The place she waited tables at was the Hong Kong Cricket Club.

Lai spoke little English - her first day, she couldn't respond to let a member know what the opening hours were - and she had no interest in cricket. The fact that it was a cricket club meant nothing more to her than it would have if she were working in a French restaurant. When she did look over at the matches, she found them confusing and boring.

The HKCC had a scheme for its employees: they could spend one hour a week learning to play cricket. Lai cared little about learning to play cricket, but an hour off work a week - that sounded fun. She had played cricket once at school, when a visiting cricket demonstration demanded that the girls play too. She remembers bowling a ball that hit the wicketkeeper on the chin. And much like that first time, in her lesson at HKCC, she showed promise straight away.

Lai had no interest in cricket. The fact that it was a cricket club meant nothing more to her than it would have if she were working in a French restaurant. When she did look over at the matches, she found them confusing and boring

Most of the rest of the staff hated it so much, they never even came back for their second lesson. But by then the coach had seen so much potential in Lai that he convinced Rodney Miles, the current Cricket Hong Kong president and former HKCC chairman, to ensure she had more time off to learn cricket. Miles' wife, Anita, was a big supporter of women's cricket, and it was these three people who changed Lai's life.

In just over a year from her first lesson, she was in the Hong Kong squad that travelled to Kuwait. A year later she played in her first game against Thailand; she batted three.

****

Cricket Hong Kong's office is in Olympic House, next to Hong Stadium, in a building where many sports administrative bodies are housed. Cricket is surrounded by basketball, tennis and triathlon, not to mention Little League and windsurfing. As many staff as possible are crammed into a small, long office, along with 50 boxes of balls. There isn't much space for the people, or facilities, here, and the head coach and analyst for the men's team both work from home.

Lai has a desk and this is where she plans her time as a cricket officer for CHK. She runs and plans coaching clinics, conducts demonstrations in schools - she visits four or five a week - and also does some promotion. For all that, she makes less now than she did as a waitress.

Her father supports her career choice but has yet to see his daughter play. Her mother wishes she would just go back and get a real job - plus the standard stuff like finding a husband - and has only ever seen her daughter play once. While Lai understands her mother's angst, she is living her dream, working in cricket, and while the salary might not be great, she lives and breathes the game she loves.

Lai's working day starts with making her way to a 7am training session with the Hong Kong women's team, which she leaves early so she can run her first school session. She then goes to the office for admin, before heading to her second school session. Finally she finishes the day with a training session for her club team, which finishes at 8.30pm.

A cricket coach's job in Hong Kong is an uphill climb, since education generally takes precedence over sport for the young Jarrod Kimber / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

It has also taken her to places like Kuwait, China, England, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka, India and Mauritius. This last year she got to spend two weeks with Perth Scorchers, under a programme the ICC has funded. These aren't things that many waitresses get to do.

Lai boasts about the broken finger she got playing cricket; it has the kind of deformity you see on the hands of many wicketkeepers.

She claims a top score of 66. It is almost impossible to find details of much of her career, because women's cricket, women's cricket at the Associate level, and women's club cricket at the Associate level are three things that cricket's obsession for scorecards has largely overlooked. Her top score for Hong Kong is 40 off 39 balls, including six fours (she looked that up, to make sure). And she has taken wickets for Hong Kong a few times, but her favourite figures were 0 for 4 from four, with all the runs coming from wides.

She wants to be an allrounder but most of her bowling for Hong Kong has been when she is captain. She says she bowls slow inswingers, and thinks they would be better if they were quicker (her coaches believe consistency could help her). As quickly as she has developed her cricket skills - and that through a combination of Cricket Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Cricket Club - she lacks the kinds of things you pick up playing a lot of cricket. She thinks that in one year she gets to play about 15 days of cricket. To make up for it, she has become obsessed with watching as much women's cricket, on TV or live-streamed, as she can.

Lai is often called captain of the Hong Kong women's team. The Perth Scorchers press-release title was, "Hong Kong skipper to join the Scorchers." But she isn't the captain now. She did captain Hong Kong to the final of the East Asia Women's T20 Championship (China beat them), but at the moment she is just a player, one who only just fought her way back into the side, and one who is still learning the game.

When it is time to go, they beg their teachers to let Lai organise one last game for them. When they get the game, one of them plays a flamingo shot, one pulls off a diving save, and the girl keeping wicket starts taking the ball cleanly

And she does have much to learn. While her coaches talk about her as being a natural athlete, and someone who has come on incredibly quickly, as many of the Chinese-origin players in the Hong Kong system have done, she and her team-mates are starting from not just a cricket knowledge of zero but an athletic experience of near zero.

When Lai leads a young school team in basic fielding drills on a basketball court near the school, it is clear these kids, all around the age of 11, also have no sporting background. A drill where they have to underarm the ball to each other is a disaster, as few can underarm straight, and even fewer can catch the balls that do come to them. Sport is still not a part of the culture in Hong Kong, and this is why Lai is so important. She may never be a great player, but as a role model, a coach, and a cricket evangelist, she can get more people playing the game in her country. That is going to be far more important than any of her inswingers can ever be.

****

The Tin Kwong Road Recreation Ground, or Mission Road cricket ground, is managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the Hong Kong government. It is a tier-four ground according to the Hong Kong government, which means it is not seen as an elite sporting facility, and the staff there are not the best groundsmen in Hong Kong.

The softball stadium next door has a higher rating of two, and that ground also has lights. There are no lights at the cricket ground, and there isn't much else. It doesn't even look like an international cricket ground, or even that special a club ground.

The tattered and barely professional outfield is looked after by the government, and sometimes football is played on it. The square has turf pitches, and one synthetic wicket, and is looked after by Cricket Hong Kong, because it is, in the absence of anything better, the home of international cricket here. The men's team gets access to the ground for three hours a week, and, in total, Cricket Hong Kong gets access for 14 hours a week.

This is one of three proper cricket grounds in Hong Kong. There are four, if you include the Police College's AstroTurf wicket, five if you include an all-AstroTurf ground, and eight if you include every single surface where they regularly lay out temporary AstroTurf pitches, including the one at King George V School in Kowloon, where Dermot Reeve was a student.

Lai demonstrates the underam throw, with Hong Kong's trademark skyscrapers looming in the background Jarrod Kimber / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The Under-17 teams play four games a year. While there are more junior players than senior ones, many of those players won't make it to senior cricket because of the lack of cricket facilities, and other things to do with life in Hong Kong, such as the fact that education comes first, second and third.

Not that it is all doom and gloom. Diasqua Little Sai Wan Cricket Club has no cricket ground, but it is a thriving club that has at times boasted many of Hong Kong's internationals. There is also the T20 Blitz, the envy of the Associate world. A well-run T20 league that Michael Clarke played in last year, and this year will feature Kumar Sangakkara, Jesse Ryder and Tymal Mills.

The men's team consists mostly of players who learnt their cricket in Hong Kong or grew up there, but they are still struggling for Chinese-origin players. It is the women's team that has led the way there, with players like Ye Shan To and Natural Yip. And there are over 4000 kids of varied ethnic backgrounds playing in cricket programmes in Hong Kong this year.

Hong Kong is not an easy place to play cricket. The only two clubs to have their own cricket grounds are the exclusive Kowloon Cricket Club and Hong Kong Cricket Club, and it is rare for either to allow a game to be played at their grounds unless one of the teams playing is from the club itself. And these are private clubs, so while they try as much as possible to give access to Cricket Hong Kong, it is just as likely that their facilities will be used by a 63-year-old overweight banker as by a future Hong Kong player.

Lai plays her cricket for the Hong Kong Cricket Club, but due to the high fees, she isn't a member. These are just the realities of cricket here.

****

Lai is standing on a basketball court on Cloud View Road with the kids who couldn't catch the ball. An hour into her coaching they are finishing the day grounding their bats, slapping the ball through covers, and pinging the ball back for run-outs. When it is time to go, they beg their teachers to let Lai organise one last game for them. When they get the game, one of them plays a flamingo shot, one pulls off a diving save, and the girl keeping wicket starts taking the ball cleanly.

Sport is still not part of the culture in Hong Kong, and this is why Lai is so important. She may never be a great player, but as a role model, a coach, and a cricket evangelist, she can get more people playing the game in her country

When she is deciding who will bat next, she has a yellow plastic bat in her hand that she taps against her leg. Anyone who has played or watched cricket will recognise this is not someone who is just holding a cricket bat, this is a cricketer. Later she will twirl the bat like Alec Stewart as she lectures on bat grip.

Her real bat, a shiny new Montgomery, is strapped to her back as she criss-crosses Hong Kong on trains, buses and on foot. As she enters a park, she remembers the time Charlie Burke, the Hong Kong director of cricket, took a few of the women's team to the MCG. When they walked up to the ground, Burke walked off the paths and cut across the grassed bit. Not one of the women followed him; they all stayed on the path. In Hong Kong, what little grass there is is so often protected by security guards that you dare not walk on it.

Emma Lai is a woman cricketer from an Associate nation with few cricket facilities, and she has no family background in cricket. That she has walked on the grass once for Hong Kong is amazing. That she did it as captain is phenomenal. That her job is now a professional cricketer and coach who spreads the cricket word is one of the sport's great achievements.

Lai will keep walking on the grass; the hope is that others follow her.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Anurag on February 23, 2017, 18:09 GMT

    What a brilliant uplifting story!! That last paragraph and line brought tears to my eyes!

  • ronnie22 on February 22, 2017, 18:59 GMT

    Lovely story and exactly the type of which cricket history is made. May she have every success!

  • Speng on February 22, 2017, 13:47 GMT

    People need to realize that this is Cricket's big opportunity, to take our sport to places and people who have little chance to play anything. I think because of the lack of traditional access to women's sport in so many places around the world that if we put effort into that 20-30 years from now cricket could be seen in many places as a girl's/women's game and that would not be a bad thing.

  • AFanOfGoodCricket on February 21, 2017, 16:07 GMT

    It is for stories like these I read Cricinfo and Cricinfo never disappoints. Yet another brilliant article from Jarrod!! And wishing the best to Lai and the Hong Kong women's team.

  • jitesh_arya on February 21, 2017, 15:04 GMT

    Well written, thought provoking, non fan-war inducing, one of the very few fresh articles written on this site. Have just one complaint with what's said here- "That is going to be far more important than any of her inswingers can ever be."- this is something that suits a person saying so about themselves. As an observer, a reporter and a writer, it seems confining, with a touch of finality to it. This is of course pertaining the sporting skill of Lai, noted in the tail of the sentence. Perhaps a tad hurtful and disrespectful. Rant out! All the best to HK, and the associate countries. Really respect the way they play sports despite the lack of facilities. They play it for the love of sport, that's the core of it, that's how I imagine it started.

  • HeavyRolla on February 21, 2017, 14:59 GMT

    Nice story. Flat land and undeveloped green space for sports doesn't fit with HK. Maybe in the center of the horse racing track. Again though big money doesn't like to share space with the common people.

  • nachiketajoshi on February 21, 2017, 14:50 GMT

    Thanks for digging out this little gem - the story and the cricketer.

  • andystat on February 21, 2017, 14:34 GMT

    Good article. Great to see someone in Hong Kong doing something they enjoy rather than chasing the money. Great role model. I have taught a class of 15-year-olds at an international school in HK and was amazed, as Jarrod has described, that they had none of the basic ball skills that kids growing up with back yards would be expected to have. Hong Kong has done amazing things with cricket over the last few years but there needs to be far more support at the grass roots level to provide the depth of talent to make success sustainable. Inevitably, The emphasis at the moment would appear to be on corporate sponsorship, if the recent Netherlands series is anything to go by. It would be nice to see more financial support from the ICC so the associate cricket nations can concentrate on cricket rather than fund raising.

  • boilabc12 on February 21, 2017, 11:21 GMT

    Cricket, for most women and cricket in Associate nations aren't lucrative enough as career choices. Unless cricket has become part of the sporting culture in a country, most people find it difficult to take interest in the game, because it takes time to understand the technicalities and intricacies of the game. ICC needs to look after the interests of the female and Associate exponents of the game as well do its best to promote cricket in these regions. The Test playing nations should take active interest in allowing players from the Associate nations play in their domestic competitions, and good performances from them should be incentivized. People like Emma Lai can serve as inspiration for everyone involved with the sport. It's extremely difficult to be a non-conformist and to possess unalloyed love for the game in a culture where very few others understand the game. This is a story only Jarrod Kimber could write.

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