Why the Blitz holds the key for Hong Kong
A multi-use sports ground in the middle of Kowloon, Hong Kong, was the unlikely venue for the latest franchise T20 tournament. For five days, passionate supporters watched excellent cricket, overlooked by the massive apartment blocks that dominate the landscape in this busy city. Sellout crowds and millions of online viewers mean that the second edition of the Hong Kong T20 Blitz can be considered a success. Infrastructure at the ground was non-existent, which meant it was a makeshift affair, but comments from those who watched in Kowloon and around the world have been almost universally positive. That Cricket Hong Kong pulled it together is entirely to their credit.
There is no reason why cricket can't take off in Hong Kong. The city has a diverse, multicultural and vibrant population. Many of those who have made this small corner of Chinese territory their home come from countries where cricket is loved. Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are here. It was a former British colony just like every other major cricketing nation.
And cricket is succeeding. The last three years have been among the most successful in Hong Kong's cricketing history. There was the win against Bangladesh at the 2014 World T20, gaining ODI and T20I status, and the successful second running of their own T20 franchise competition featuring superstars like Darren Sammy, Misbah-ul-Haq and Kumar Sangakkara.
There has been cricket in Hong Kong as far back as 1841. The first game played by a Hong Kong team took place in 1866. Despite this long history and their recent successes, all anyone seems to remember when you mention cricket here is the Sixes tournaments that took place at Kowloon Cricket Club or the Hong Kong Stadium, that venue for the Rugby Sevens tournament, between 1992 and 2012.. There are plans to bring it back, with Cricket Hong Kong's CEO Tim Cutler feeling it has a place in the developmental landscape. Still, it is an obvious point of frustration for Cutler that a tournament that hasn't happened in five years is still what his corner of the cricketing world is most famous for.
The Sixes came to an end not because it was unpopular, but because the Hong Kong government turned down Cricket Hong Kong's application for funding and they could not find a sponsor to cover the shortfall. But cricket moves on quickly and now all anyone wants to talk about is T20.
With that in mind three Australians that are at the heart of Hong Kong cricket had an idea that was something of a whim. Commercial director Max Abbott, Charlie Burke, the director of cricket, and Cutler decided to have a franchise T20 tournament played at the Tin Kwong Road Recreation Ground in Mong Kok. Once they had made that call, they committed to it completely.
That first tournament was a fairly low-key affair, although it was live-streamed around the world. Cricket Hong Kong have been at the forefront of this kind of coverage at Associate level, with multi-camera set-ups, commentary and replays all playing a part in their streams on YouTube and Facebook. The only big name who took part in the 2016 competition was Michael Clarke, and the event was marred by rain, but there was enough positivity generated to do it again this year and to make it even bigger.
Of course, the Hong Kong Sixes had star names in the past, from Shane Warne to Sachin Tendulkar to Brian Lara, but the quality of overseas stars attracted to the Blitz this year was a massive plug for cricket in Hong Kong. The excitement when the big names were leaving the stadium was frenetic, with security staff having to push back excited fans desperate for a picture with their heroes.
Simon Millington, the former chairman of Cricket Hong Kong and the man who organised that last Sixes tournament in 2012, was at all five days of games and was impressed with what the Blitz brought to Hong Kong.
"I have always been a passionate supporter of the Sixes but the world has moved on and it was clear to see from the interest, both locally and internationally, that the T20 Blitz is what people want to see," he said. "It is time to cut the emotional ties with the Sixes and look forward."
The interest in the event was overwhelming. While the small ground was sold out, the really impressive numbers were for the live-streaming, which was beamed around to world for free. Over three million people watched live; the numbers watching clips of the event since is continuing to rise. If you build it, they will come, as Kevin Costner said.
The television production was entirely self-funded by Cricket Hong Kong and cost US$65,000. There was serious interest in a TV company picking up the rights when Yusuf Pathan was signed for the event. That interest quickly disappeared when the Indian allrounder did not get a no-objection certificate from the BCCI. The TV money could have taken the event to another level, and paid for improved infrastructure at the ground, but Cutler was still delighted with how things went.
"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 edition of the Blitz, I am looking forward to the next step in Hong Kong cricket even more."
That next step for cricket in Hong Kong is a matter for debate. The standard of cricket on show was pretty good, with local players from within the national set-up doing well. A hundred from Nizakat Khan, a match-winning innings from Babar Hayat in the final, classy runs from Anshuman Rath and very good bowling from Aizaz Khan and Tanveer Ahmed, showed that there is cricketing talent in Hong Kong.
Depth is lacking, though. Each of the franchises had one or two players who did little more than field and occasionally needed to be instructed to watch the captain to get their positioning right. That player pool needs to be increased if cricket in Hong Kong is to continue to improve.
The weekend days saw a sellout crowd of around 1500. Almost all of those who were at the tournament across the five days were expats from cricket-playing countries; many of those will have been born or brought up in Hong Kong, but cricket has still not made a significant impact with the native Chinese population.
The debate about whether the future is in the expats who make Hong Kong their home, or if it is with expanding the sport to the Chinese population, continues apace, with most realising that both are vital. The possibility of cricket making it big in China using Hong Kong as a springboard is an exciting one. In terms of people and money there is no market that offers more than China. Only the USA comes close in terms of potential revenue generation from outside the existing cricketing nations.
"The role of cricket in Hong Kong and China cannot be underestimated. Cricket offers players a chance to partake in a team sport that has global accreditation," said Mark Wright, sports development manager at Hong Kong Cricket Club. Wright went on to say that over the last five to ten years Hong Kong Chinese players have made great strides, with Cricket Hong Kong setting up multilingual development programmes with some of the biggest names in world cricket.
Cricket Hong Kong visits Chinese language schools to promote the game, and Wright says this is vital to the hopes of expanding the sport. Getting Chinese youngsters to play the game, and to talk about the sport, is how a love for cricket is developed. Whether an event like the Blitz can generate interest outside those who are already fans is questionable, but the prospect of generating a product that can create income that allows funding of developmental programmes is exciting.
For all the nostalgia for the Sixes, only T20 can do that for Hong Kong cricket. There is talk of the Sixes returning in October this year, but the franchise T20 competition is now the crown jewel of cricket in this crazy, hectic and loveable city. Those who run the game need to be cognisant of that. Sixes is a day at the circus; T20 is a vibrant sport that is growing by the day.
Peter Miller is a cricket writer and podcaster. @TheCricketGeek