Asia Cup 2008, India were playing Hong Kong in Karachi. MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina smacked hundreds to script an emphatic win on a day which marked India’s 25th anniversary of World Cup triumph under Kapil Dev. A one-sided affair handed India an easy success. But according to Dhoni, it was an experience that would help Hong Kong in the longer run. For that moment, Dhoni had turned a soothsayer. Sitting a few thousand kilometers away from the stadium at his home in Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan was Ehsan Khan. Just like any other budding off-spinner, Ehsan harboured dreams of bowling to the modern greats of the game. But neither of the two protagonists knew they would cross path a decade later.
Fast forward to Asia Cup 2018, Ehsan Khan dismisses Dhoni for a duck to live the shining moment of his life. But not in the green of Pakistan but the red and black jersey of Hong Kong.
Born in Pakistan, Ehsan is one of the several cricketers who trace their origin to the sub-continent. In 1999 he represented Rawalpindi in the U-15 side but after graduating from the U-19’s, opportunities came few and far between.
In 2012, he took the leap and moved to Kowloon. From practicing alone by booking nets to cooking food for himself every day, Ehsan faced it all – but rose steadily through the ranks and is now an intricate part of the team. Despite batting at number six, he considers himself a ‘more-than-capable’ batsman.
He made his debut against Scotland in 2016. Two years later in UAE (Asia Cup 2018) where Hong Kong’s first match was against Pakistan, Ehsan returned with two important wickets – Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam. Against India, he got rid off MS Dhoni and Rohit Sharma but Hong Kong lost the match by 26 runs. They did, however, earn credit for pushing India out of their comfort zone. When players of both teams got together for an informal chat after the match, Ehsan made the most of the opportunity and clicked a photograph with his two ‘victims’. Today it is his Whatsapp display picture. “In my dreams, I would often think of dismissing Sachin Tendulkar or MS Dhoni. Sachin ko nahi kar paya, dukh hai. Dhoni ka wicket mila…Isliye jhuk key sajda kiya (Couldn’t take the wicket of Sachin but bagged the wicket of Dhoni. This is why I bent down and paid respect),” said Ehsan, in a chat with IndianExpress.com from Kowloon.
“If Sachin is god then Dhoni is the ‘King of cricket’. I have plans to write a book on my career and when I do, MS Dhoni will be the main chapter. I shall read it to my grandson because life is like a fairytale now,” he adds.
People in Hong Kong recognise his feat especially the students he coaches during the day. Surviving only on cricket is difficult in Hong Kong but Ehsan feels keeping things simple in life has its rewards. “As a cricketer, you are never complete the process needs to keep on going.” At 33 he knows how to keep himself going with a little bit of advice by Dhoni who said, “You have a lot of cricket left. Fitness is what you should be looking at.”
How the Dhoni wicket was taken?
For one year Ehsan had been working on a particular variety of his off-breaks. Scruffing up the outer side of the white-ball he worked on his action as well. “I have tried to use the side-arm action, with a straightish seam. The Kookaburra ball moves just a bit in the air. Seedha jaake drift milta hain, (floats through the air and gets drift)” said Ehsan. He used the same ball against Dhoni and the right-hander got an edge to hand him his prized wicket. “One year of hard work paid off at that moment.” In the dressing room interaction, Dhoni greeted him in a typical nonchalant way- “Khata hi kholne nahi diya. Koi nahi dekhunga ball replay mein. (Didn’t let him open the account. Will keep watching the ball on the replay)”
While Ehsan considers Dhoni’s wicket as an equivalent to a fifer, the bigger challenge according to him was Rohit Sharma. “Rohit can hit double hundreds at will. I kept reminding my boys that we need to get him out early.” Such was his obsession on the field that Rohit ended up saying, “Kya Ehsan tum toh mere 200 ke pichey pad gaye. (Aye Ehsan, you were after my 200!)“
Among his teammates, the 33-year-old is known as the man with the ‘golden arm’. A quick look at his exploits in the Asia Cup will tell you why. Against continental giants, India and Pakistan, Ehsan bagged collective 4 wickets. They are all big names, he points out, and he’s right – Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam and India’s Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni. In the qualification round, he returned with figures of 4/15 vs Nepal and 4/17 vs UAE.
However, being a part of an Associate Nation has its limitations. They get to play only 10 to 12 matches in a year which is insufficient. “Hong Kong has only one international stadium. We have talented cricketers who need exposure at the right age.”
“I hope T20 leagues across the globe have a minimum quota of 3 players from Associates. It will help cricket at the end of the day,” appealed Ehsan.
Reflecting on the bitter defeat against India, he said, “We lost the match against India by 26 runs but after the last ball of our innings, Rohit complimented our efforts and kept saying ‘That it was an amazing match.’ There is a reason behind his observation.”
More opportunities for Associates
Hong Kong lost their ODI status during the World Cup qualifiers, quite a setback for a team that is looking to make strides forward. “For 3 years we played well and one bad tournament ruins the entire thing. A look into the rules would help,” Ehsan rued. Hong Kong is currently ranked 18th in ODIs but in the World Cricket League, they featured in the top three.
Hong Kong’s head coach Simon Cook believes players should be given a chance in T20 leagues based on merit and not a quota. Pointing out that patience is key to success, Cook maintained that it is all about being given the right opportunities at the correct moment. But retaining players in the national team-setup continues to remain a perpetual headache. “Hong Kong is an expensive city to live in. After 23 or 24 years, players tend to look for other jobs to sustain their family. James Atkinson is one example who gave up on cricket to be a school teacher,” said Cook.
When cricket was removed from Asian Games 2018 it led to further setback. “It cost us 7 million Hong Kong dollars of revenue,” rued Cook. “But hopefully, crickets governing body ‘[ICC] will take note of it and help us with a build a better future.” The ball is in the ICC’s court. What will be their move? Patience is the answer…