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‘If we don’t stay up, then my job is in jeopardy’: Hong Kong chief on the cut-throat world of cricket’s minnows

Elite cricket is a tough game but spare a thought for the sport’s minnows, who have to contend with makeshift facilities, scant funding and the chronic threat of financial ruin.

At a small ground in the heart of bustling Hong Kong, the soothing sight of an afternoon’s play belies the very real risks facing cricket’s associate, or second-tier, nations.

Hong Kong have risen as high as 10th in the world in Twenty20 cricket and in 2014 they beat hosts Bangladesh in front of a stunned Chittagong Stadium at the World T20.

Yet just a couple of untimely defeats could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in International Cricket Council funding, setting them back years.

Tim Cutler, Cricket Hong Kong’s 34-year-old CEO from Australia, is painfully aware that a run of poor form by the national team could mean the end of his job.

“It’s such a cut-throat world, associate cricket,” Cutler said, as Hong Kong played Papua New Guinea earlier this month. “There’s huge pressure on games of cricket.”

Hong Kong play in the tier below the test nations, but relegation to the next division could cost $750,000 in funding, plus other support for tours and training, Cutler said.

It gives games between associate nations an edge not found at test level, with a team’s future and the livelihoods of players and officials sometimes at stake.

Kenya, Canada, the Netherlands and Bermuda have all felt the pain of reduced circumstances after losing their ODI status and finding themselves unable to win it back.

“If you drop the ball, you can see the effect it’s had on teams like Canada and Kenya, Bermuda as well,” Cutler said.

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“So it’s a tough old world, associate cricket. I know if we don’t stay up in the World Cricket League then my job’s in jeopardy as well … there’s a lot of funding linked to some single, tough, on-field targets.

“Sport’s a game, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Generally business (is) … very rarely linked intrinsically to sometimes single results.”

Hong Kong’s battle to survive and thrive is not helped by the scarcity of cricket grounds in a densely populated city with some of the world’s highest property prices.

Their three-match series against Papua New Guinea was played at Mission Road, close to the heart of the teeming Mong Kok district and skirted by a high-rise apartment block.

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The former British colony’s cricketers often play on cramped fields belonging to schools and the police force, where they use artificial or roll-out wickets.

“Some of those grounds we can only play from one end, just because of how small the grounds are,” Cutler said.

Cricket Hong Kong recently took over the lease at a former landfill site at Gin Drinkers Bay, whose Cantonese name translates as “Rubbish Bay”.

“It’s an ex-landfill so it will be quite convex. So we won’t be playing high-class cricket on there,” dead-panned the CEO.

Such conditions pose problems when Hong Kong play abroad: not used to bigger fields, their batsmen have to hit harder than usual to reach the boundary.

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“It sometimes does play on our minds with the small boundaries, especially when we play international games with the boundaries being much bigger,” said Hong Kong batsman Anshuman Rath.

“We tend to get away with it here because of the small boundary … just 45 metres (49 yards), hitting sixes all day long.”

Low wages can also make players vulnerable, as seen when Hong Kong all-rounder Irfan Ahmed was banned for 30 months this year for failing to report match-fixing approaches.

Cutler, who was appointed last year, is working to establish new revenue streams with tournaments such as the Hong Kong Sixes or the T20 Blitz, which featured ex-Australia captain Michael Clarke in its inaugural edition in May.

Even as those tournaments take root, with the hugely successful Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament as their model, Cutler says he wishes cricket had more government support in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, a Chinese “Special Administrative Region” of seven million people.

“We have a Hong Kong side that’s performing at the highest level. We’re ranked 14th in the world in one-day cricket, we’ve been ranked as high as 10 in T20 cricket,” he said.

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“It’s something for Hong Kong to be proud of, and we should celebrate it.”

At least Cricket Hong Kong isn’t having to pay for any smashed windows. At the Mission Road ground, the apartment block flanking the boundary has so far remained unscathed.

“I don’t think anyone can hit it that far,” said Rath.