March 2, 2017

My time in the Hong Kong dugout

Our correspondent gets a different perspective on an Associates game

Anshy Rath makes his maiden List A hundred in the first game © Panda Man

Under a tent too low for former seam bowlers from England, Simon Cook, formerly of Middlesex and Kent, tries to find me a chair. He looks every bit the former athlete; you can see how he took 342 first-class wickets. When he finds me a chair and puts it next to him, I may not literally be his right-hand man, but for this one-dayer (a List A game, not an official ODI) between Hong Kong and Netherlands, I'm sitting to the right of Hong Kong's coach.

That will be my place for the next two games. For the first half of the match, I'm afraid of moving in case I break some sort of PMOA (players media officials access) code, so I don't even go to the toilet. And also because the Netherlands manager has made it clear he is not happy I am here.

Cook sits at a trestle table. He has a laptop open and a notebook. Behind his laptop is a big screen, and next to that screen is the analyst Chris "Wilson" Pickett's laptop, which is running the Sports Mechanics analyst software. Pickett looks like the kind of wiry opening bat who would annoy you by playing and missing a lot. He previously worked with Sussex, and coaches Hong Kong Dragons, the Hong Kong Chinese team.

Hong Kong are fielding. Cook doesn't give a big speech just before play; they just get out there and do their jobs. Opening bowler Ehsan Nawaz starts the day with five wides. There will be another wide and a misfield in the first over.

But there is a bigger problem.

Hong Kong Cricket are pioneers in many ways. They live-stream their games, and not just with a single-camera set-up and the sound of the ground, but with multiple cameras and commentators. The camera crew and producers are experts in their field but not experts in cricket. As the bowler hits the crease, they cut to a sideways view of the game. At other times they focus not on the ball but on close-ups of the stumps. And they regularly put up replays of certain balls ahead of live cricket.

This drives Pickett crazy, as it's his job to enter all the data in. At times he has to run between overs and try to train the crews on how to cover the game. For the second game he puts up his own camera and uses that. Associate teams realise that embracing data, as many of the big teams have done, will give them certain advantages. At this level, you can only afford so many mistakes.

Once they start getting their data, they see something straight away that bothers them. Nawaz is over-correcting. He bowls big inswingers to left-handers, but when he bowls straight, they swing down the leg side, and when he bowls wide, they don't swing and are often called wides. Hong Kong have been working on this for a while now.

Jamie Atkinson, one of their star batsmen, is at slip. Atkinson was Hong Kong captain and big things were expected of him, but he had to give up the captaincy when he got a job as a teacher. The batsman takes a big swipe at the ball and there is a flashing edge straight to Atkinson. He never sees it. It smashes him on the head. He plays out the game but has no real impact on it. When he continues to feel unwell, he is taken to a doctor and diagnosed with concussion. He doesn't play in the follow-up game.

Pickett and Cook look at the early groupings from their seamers. They are bowling full and wide when the plan was to bowl shorter and very straight, almost on the leg-and-middle line. From their data and planning, they have seen that both batsmen like the front foot, so banging it into the deck also gives their bowlers more room for error. Cook asks 16-year-old Jhatavedh Subramanyan, the 13th man, to pass the message on to Aizaz Khan, the other opening bowler. Hong Kong today have four teenagers in the XI, the youngest being 17. In the next game they have five.

Hayat is calm, Rath is eager. Rath tries to push the game forward, Hayat tries to slow it down. They both handle pace and spin. They both look like natural batsmen and as if they intimately understand how to construct a one-day chase

Subramanyan runs off to fine leg with the message. Aizaz starts his next over with a half-volley, which is driven for four. A couple of balls later another full ball is driven away. Cook looks on silently. Then he turns to me and wonders what happened. Perhaps the message wasn't passed on correctly or forcefully enough. Maybe the bowler decided the advice was wrong and his plan was better. Or it could just be that the bowler doesn't have control of his length enough to execute the right ball. Later Cook asks me what I think of Bob Woolmer's plan to have an earpiece to talk to the captain. He probably wishes he had them for all his players.

Offspinner Ehsan Khan takes the wicket of Ben Cooper, and Cook passes on a new note: just bowl for dots. The thinking is that this isn't a wicket where you can attack, so the best way is to make the batsmen play shots they shouldn't be playing. Instead, Netherlands start hitting sixes.

Cook reluctantly leaves the tent for a commentary stint, which has been cleared by the match referee. It's the sort of thing that leading international coaches don't often do.

In the 27th over, Hong Kong's batting prodigy, 19-year-old Anshy Rath, comes on to bowl. They worry that Rath, a decent left-arm fingerspinner when in form, might have the yips. He clearly does, and is taken for 16 runs. In the next match, he's brought on in the 42nd over and goes for 15 runs. Between the games Cook had Rath bowling with his eyes closed, and he bowled perfectly, the problem was, he wasn't going to be able to do that in the match.

Hong Kong's captain, Babar Hayat, is an intriguing tactician. "Babar has plans that no one on this earth can understand," Pickett will say of him at one stage.

After Rath's over they get a bonus wicket as Ehsan, the spinner and slogger, takes a good catch on the boundary, right in front of the HK tent, and then turns and screams at the team. Someone jokes that he might have been upset with some comments about his fielding. But it turns out that in taking the catch, he has he managed to split the webbing in his fingers. Subramanyan asks if he will go back out there, "Of course," he says, "this happens all the time." Sarah Whitehead, the physio, carefully tries to patch up the problem and quickly gets him back on the field. Ehsan's hands are more tape than fingers. Two overs later he is back off, as his hand is bleeding, and Whitehead goes through the motions again.

Hong Kong continually set fields for Netherlands captain Peter Borren, keeping mid-on and mid-off up. They also put a specialist fielder for the reverse sweep. None of these things bothers Borren. He still plays the reverse sweep. "Reverse sweep is an ego shot," Cook says. Later Borren slaps a straight six.

Cook believes in the roles triangle, which is asking a player to accept his role within the team, train in the skills needed for that role, and then execute it on match days. This isn't easy to explain to players who are the stars of their clubs and don't understand that at this level they might just be role players.

There are also problems specific to Hong Kong Cricket. Like, for the longest time, they essentially only had eight players they could confidently pick. They picked the three best fielders from the rest. That was because there isn't much cricket played in Hong Kong. Sometimes players can go three weeks without a game because there simply aren't enough grounds in the country - eight in total if you include all the AstroTurf grounds and the school grounds on which they roll out a temporary wicket.

There are also culturally specific problems. One young player was offered the chance to play in an emerging-teams tournament against Sri Lanka and India, but he turned it down because it would interfere with his schooling. Another player, Shahid Wasif, is a student who also works as a security guard from 7pm to 7am.

Babar Hayat is run out for 86 in the second one-dayer © Panda Man

Netherlands end with 330 runs. As they eat their lunch, Cook and Pickett discuss the fact that Hong Kong bowled 50% dot balls but also let through a boundary an over. They believe their bowlers think ball by ball, like amateurs, rather than about stringing together good overs and spells.

Cook takes out a whiteboard and writes where he wants the team to be at 15 overs (95 for 2), and where he wants them at 35 (222 for 4).

Borren bowls the third over after his opener, Vivian Kingma, bowls a shocker, and Cook wistfully says how great it would be to have someone with that sort of experience in his side, who can also do whatever is needed at any time

The other opening bowler, Paul van Meekeren, is bowling fast, and some of his balls are tagging sideways. Pickett talks about how they have data on van Meeekeren, and how with the Sports Mechanics app, the players can watch any bowler any time they want to learn more about them.

The chat moves to stealing runs, and running in general. The team has just had a revolution in the way they think about running between the wickets, and while they have seen more runs, they have also seen more run-outs. Cook just wants them to think there is a run every ball, to have that intent.

As he talks about this, 19-year-old opener Chris Carter is out there batting. Carter is clearly a talented player, but he is also new to being a specialist batsman. His technique is strong, his eye is decent, but he gets trapped in his innings (he makes 24 from 64 in the next game) and can't find singles. His batting is fine; his run-making needs work.

And it's not just him. Both teams have players who hit boundaries but who don't rotate the strike enough. Cook wants all his players to know that a defensive shot doesn't just need to go straight back to the bowler. That you can drop your hands, turn your wrists, or even move across the crease before the ball is bowled to change the angle. As he talks about it, Carter is out lbw after not picking the left-arm wristspinner.

The concussed Atkinson follows soon after, and at 51 for 2, there is a bit of worry in the team. With Hayat and Rath at the crease, Cook turns his attention to the next batsman, Nizakat Khan. He tells him they don't need to over-attack, they have time to knock it around and just go at 5.5 an over for the next 20 overs. But if the ball is there to be hit, hit it. You get the feeling that Cook always is a bit cautious with his middle order, because although they don't need much prompting to go full nuclear.

Cook takes a big breath and gets up. After the handshakes he takes his team out to the middle. He speaks softly, like a disappointed teacher. He wants them to know that they played outstandingly well, but from 250 for 2, they threw it away

Carter comes over to Cook's computer and looks at his lbw a few times, as much as anything to see if it is out, and then to confirm what he thought: he chose the wrong ball to reverse-sweep and didn't pick which way it was spinning. He then looks at a couple of his boundaries. What he doesn't look at is the many balls he didn't score off. For Carter, the boundaries aren't the problem - he will hopefully learn to read wrist spin better. The most simple way he can improve is by facing fewer dots.

There is a huge shout behind for Rath's wicket, but the umpire is unmoved. A message from the middle at drinks confirms that he had smashed it. Hayat gets dropped, and that noticeably relaxes the team.

Rath and Hayat also batted together for a very long time in the first-class match before the two one-dayers. Hayat made 173 and 31, Rath 98 not out and 88.

The two of them are so different. Rath looks well coached, thinks cleverly about the game, and you can feel him itching to score. When he goes over mid-off, it is as cricket is intended. He has great feet and hands. A middle-order player at his best, thrust into the top of the Hong Kong order, in the last few months he has finally made the most of his obvious batting talent. Very soon he will sign with a county.

Hayat plays languid strokes and hits the ball smoothly. There have been worries about his fitness. Often he plays one big innings and then struggles. But here he is, batting beautifully, even if his running between the wickets is at times non-existent (he is run out at a crucial moment in the second one-dayer, because he was ball-watching).

Their partnership is well constructed. Hayat is calm, Rath is eager. Rath tries to push the game forward, Hayat tries to slow it down. They both handle pace and spin. They both look like natural batsmen and as if they intimately understand how to construct a one-day chase. At the end of the series Borren says the Hong Kong top order is very good, and he should know just from bowling at Rath and Hayat practically all tour.

When a six is hit into the local apartments, the Hong Kong players cheer, but the coaching staff know that when a ball is hit there, it costs US$100, as you can't go into the private residence to get it back.

Even with the sixes, Hayat's majestic calm and Rath's professional scoring, the next man in, Nizakat, is very nervous. He sits behind Cook and Pickett, and Cook's calming chats do not do the trick. You can feel his nervous energy, or hear his spikes rattling on the concrete nervously. He asks Pickett how many overs are left for each bowler. Later he asks again. And then one more time. "Just don't worry about it, go out there and bat," Pickett finally tells him. It's quite a thing for the analyst to say, but it's probably what Nizakat now needs to do.

Ehsan Khan appeals for a wicket in the drawn first-class game © Panda Man

Rath brings up his hundred, and Hayat keeps going as well. They need 82 off the final ten overs with eight wickets remaining. It is not going to be easy, but they could not be in a much better position chasing 331.

Then Hayat is out stumped to Borren, and despite Hong Kong being ahead in the game, I sense Cook get nervous. He picks up a plastic spoon from the ground and starts playing with it. I start to see a pattern when Cook is nervous: he will get silent, fixate on something small, and then jump up suddenly to impart some guidance for the next player.

Nizakat, after all his nervousness off the field, looks quite comfortable on it. He smashes Borren for a six and then flat-bats a van Meekeren short ball back into the apartment complex. Nizakat is an extraordinary talent. He goes from looking like he is about to miss the ball by a foot to creaming it over extra cover for six. He smashed a hundred against the Sydney Thunder bowlers in a practice match before the Big Bash this season, bringing up the milestone in the last over with a six. In the second game against Netherlands, he runs down the wicket at Roelof van der Merwe and plays a squash shot over cover for six.

With Nizakat and Rath at the crease, the target comes down to 46 from 36 balls. But at no stage does Cook feel overly confident.

Rath then tries to put away a poor ball from Michael Rippon, but hits it very high and is caught for 134. Rath is fuming as he comes off the ground. His 130 is brilliant, but as he reaches the change room, he screams the sort of word that ESPNcricinfo doesn't publish. Cook leans into me and says, "It's great to see someone that that kind of anger after they've made a hundred".

Nizakat hits the next ball straight to long-on. "That is brainless," Cook says to no one in particular. He writes an angry note in his book before placing it aggressively back on his desk. The whole camp feels edgier now. If Cook was the first to feel really nervous, they've now all joined him.

It's 30 off 24 balls with five wickets in hand and no set batsman at the crease. The two batsmen in the middle are so nervous, at one stage one goes down the wrong end to bat at the end of the over. Cook laughs a gallows laugh.

He has already spoken to both batsmen out in the middle, and now he goes to the remaining batsmen and talks them through what they need to do. He could not be more calm or clear: We should play van der Merwe out. Van Meekeren will bowl short, use his pace to hit him behind the wicket. And most importantly wait for boundary balls. Netherlands are under just as much pressure as we are.

Then Ehsan, who had been slogging luckily, is given out lbw. All the Hong Kong players believe it is off the glove and they crowd around the replay, which shows pretty much that. It is an exceptionally poor decision at a very crucial moment. No one mentions that Rath edged a catch early in his innings and wasn't given out.

Now no players are sitting down, it is too tense, they pace as individuals, but it's a group worry. Cook doesn't send messages out to the middle at the end of each over, he doesn't panic, and he doesn't do much, he just tries to make sure every batsman is prepared and plays sensible cricket.

A full ball is scooped into the leg side. Netherlands scream "Catch", a lone Hong Kong voice screams "No." And then the catch is taken. Someone says that the tail always do this, someone else says, "That's why we shouldn't let them in." Another wicket falls, and the talk stops altogether. Cook just refolds his arms.

When a six is hit into the local apartments, the Hong Kong players cheer, but the coaching staff knows that when a ball is hit there, it costs US$100, as you can't go into the private residence to get it back

They have consistently lost wickets to shots that were not on. When the ninth wicket falls, Hong Kong need 16 off ten balls. Carter walks up to where his gloves have been drying in the sun and picks them up. If ever there was a sign that the No. 11, Tanveer Ahmed, is not expected to help them win, it's this. An edged boundary from him gets them close; they need 11 from 8, then ten from the last over. Nadeem Ahmed will face it; van Meekeren will bowl it.

Nadeem mishits the first ball. No run is taken. "Just gotta get one of those away," says Cook. Then a wide from a short ball. Another mishit, another run refused. Then another knocked-back single, which drives Cook mad. Then another wide. Then a taken single. "Why take it now?" says Cook. Another single. At no stage has either batsman tried to use the pace of van Meekeren against him. They knew he was going to bowl short. He did bowl short, and they did nothing with it.

The batsmen almost exchange bats after a chat. Pickett laughs, Cook just shakes his head in disbelief. They need a six off the last ball to tie. It is mistimed to long-off. They don't even take the single. Someone mentions net run rate, but it's not the most important thing on people's minds.

Cook takes a big breath and gets up. After the handshakes he takes his team out to the middle. He speaks softly, like a disappointed teacher. He wants them to know that they played outstandingly well, but from 250 for 2, they threw it away. He tells them they were neither calm nor smart, and references another game where the same thing happened. He praises their talent but questions their decision-making. "We want to make a name for ourselves and we had a chance to do that today." He tails off at the end.

I go back to my seat to pack up. Cook comes over and asks me what I think about the game. At first I am flattered. I think I have penetrated the inner circle. I am an analyst. But then I realise that in truth, he's just out of answers.

I tell him that maybe he could have micromanaged more when the collapse started, sent out more notes, been more vocal. But even as I say it, I hedge, because I am not even sure that any of that would have worked. Cook shrugs and goes silent.

Netherlands will make over 300 again in the next game. Ehsan will over-compensate for his swing again. Hong Kong try will try to execute the correct plan for opener Stephan Myburgh, but the bowlers won't follow through on it. On his whiteboard Cook will write, "When you get in, go on and win the game". Rath and Hayat will again make a big partnership but neither will bat through to the end. Nizakat will again thrill, and then get out well before his job is done. And Hong Kong will again struggle with their middle order, and their tail will again not be good enough to complete the win.

The game will remind me of something that Cook said after the first loss. "We can say we are learning, but not if we keep making the same mistakes."

Hong Kong, the team with only three proper cricket grounds, have scored over 600 chasing over two games, but without that win, it feels like it's all for nothing.

In the second game, I notice one different thing from Cook. Hong Kong had managed to keep the Netherlands top order under pressure much better. Since they were batting too slow, you could sense they were going to attack when van der Merwe came in. Cook realised it after one attacking shot.

There are no quiet pauses this time. He is up and tells his 12th man to pass on the message: "They are going to come at us hard, but if you can hang in there, two quick wickets might come and that will knock the stuffing out of them."

But just telling his 12th man isn't enough, so he runs over to a sweeper on the boundary and tells him too. Then he runs off and tells another sweeper the same message. If Cook could, he'd tell them all.

Netherlands do come hard, a chance is created, and it is dropped. The next over, a wicket is taken. Cook just shrugs his shoulders and goes quiet again.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Max on March 3, 2017, 23:43 GMT

    I was at the ground and it was wonderful

  • Joe on March 2, 2017, 15:12 GMT

    I watched the game live, yeah it was a bit weird TV coverage. But the game itself was thrilling, came down to the wire. Wish I had known Kimber was there, I would've tried to look for him. Great to know what goes on behind the scenes at these associate games

  • No featured comments at the moment.