Nizakat Khan recently rose to prominence with a near match-winning 92 against India in the Asia Cup 2018 in Dubai. However, the Pakistan-born allrounder was already an established player in the Hong Kong set-up and with the exit of a couple of prominent players gives him and the team a huge opportunity to redeem themselves and get the One-Day International (ODI) status back in the next three years or so.
In a chat with Cricket.com, Nizakat speaks about his journey with the team so far, his stint at a couple of T20 leagues, THAT game against India and much more.
What has your schedule been like during these tough times? Have you managed to do any outdoor training/practice in the last two months or so?
When the lockdown started in Hong Kong, we hardly spent time outside as the facilities were closed. We did our conditioning and circuit training at home. Our fitness trainer and our head coach Trent Johnston put in a lot of effort. They came on Zoom and looked after us, give us 4-5 hours of the day. The credit goes to the staff as well. After the restrictions were reduced and social distancing was lifted, we were allowed to train indoors in HKCC (Hong Kong Cricket Club). We have been training there. We are into very basic stuff. The grounds are still closed because it’s off-season in Hong Kong. So, we’ve been doing our gym work in a university. We usually do our gym work there and then we do our skill work in HKCC.
Tell me about your cricket journey - you were born in Pakistan, moved to Hong Kong and have played for the national side right from the Under-15 level. How have these 12-13 years with the team at all levels been?
It’s amazing. I was born in Pakistan. When I was a baby I came to Hong Kong in 1992, when I was like 2-3 months maybe. Then, I went back to Pakistan in 1993 with my mother but my father was in Hong Kong. I went with my mother because of my grandma and grandfather. My mother had to go there to take care of them. I came back to Hong Kong in 2004 alone because my father is like my main sponsor. He said you get good education here, so I came here for education. From there I started my journey. I came into softball cricket. In 2005, there was an Under-13 tour which was in Malaysia. I went to training… because I was very new in Hong Kong, I didn’t know much about cricket as well. I learnt cricket in Hong Kong not Pakistan. I got picked for Under-13 in 2005. After three years when I was 16, I debuted for the Hong Kong main team. It was an amazing journey for me. From there to now I am currently playing. It’s been amazing playing for my country, playing for Hong Kong. It’s a big honor.
In 2008, there was a tour - that took you back to Pakistan where you played against Pakistan. Was that a strange feeling for you in some way?
In 2008, I had been picked for the Asia Cup in Pakistan. Before that we went to Lahore for a practice tour. I got picked because I was very young. Our head coach Aftab Habib picked me. To be honest, my dream was to actually play for a country – no matter which country. I was lucky enough to play for Hong Kong.
Growing up which cricketer did you look up to and why?
The one cricketer I’ve mentioned before as well…I used to watch Pakistan and India old games when I was very young and got the hang of playing cricket in Hong Kong. I used to keep on going to YouTube and search all those cricket matches. I used to find Pakistan-India Sharjah Cup. One player I was inspired was by Saeed Anwar. The handwork, the feet movement to the ball, it was very good to watch. Currently, one of the popular guys in the world, Virat Kohli – I am following him. He is currently one of my favourite players.
Tell me about that Asia Cup game against India. You put on a terrific partnership with Anshuman Rath for the first wicket. At what point did you believe that Hong Kong could actually pull this off? Was there a sense of disappointment when you fell short in the end?
When we finished the finished innings… we were thinking they (India) were going to score 400 against us. India was batting in the day. We won the toss, we wanted to bowl first. Against Pakistan, we batted first, so that game (vs India) we wanted to bowl first. The wicket was flat. Our bowling line-up was not that experienced. We thought that they are going to give us a big total. We restricted them to 280 (285) – we did really well. When we were going into the dressing room, we didn’t talk much about we’re going to win or not. Our main focus was to play 50 overs and then no matter what happens, we’ll see at the end of the game. But we had to play 50 overs and that was in my mind that I am going to play 50 overs.
The other thing was to be positive. If there is a ball to hit, I had to hit it. I always had the dream to meet Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni – they’re legends. I was lucky enough to play against them. It was a good journey and good fun. I really, really enjoyed it. When I and Anshuman were going we started well. We were just building small partnerships and not thinking about the 280. Just go to 20 runs, 30 runs and that slowly will build up.
You and the current captain Aizaz Khan have been playing together for a long time now. You two were even part of the Under-19 World Cup in 2010. How’s your relationship with him?
He and I we first played for Hong Kong Under-13 in 2005. I know him from a very young age. We’ve played together, we have very good memories, and we are like brothers. We have had a very good time and still we are going well. Both of us are young and we have a good future ahead.
Tell me about your century for Hong Kong against BBL Champions Sydney Thunder in 2016. You got a cheer when you were dropped on 93 and even more when you reached a century in the last over. What was that experience like?
It was a very good experience. Playing against a quality side when Eoin Morgan was playing, Fawad Ahmed, Andre Russell, Shane Watson. When you play against those big names it is always you get pumped up, you get excited. I always enjoyed big games. I love to play against big teams. In the first match too, I was going well. I scored 27 (25) off 16-17 (12) balls.
Video Courtesy: Tim Cutler
Next game, we were chasing 168-odd runs. I just told myself that I have to use the first six overs. That’s the most important thing. The wicket was flat. It was a quick bouncy wicket. The ball was coming very nicely to the bat. To be honest, I was just playing through the line. My main aim was to get a boundary every over because if we had to win the game, we had to start well and then I had to go all the way. That’s what I did. I played 20 overs and I scored a hundred. It was a very, very good game. Very tough, but good game.
How has your experience in the Hong Kong T20 Blitz been? You scored a brilliant century in the first edition and had a good outing in the second season as well. How has it been playing with some top cricketers like Daren Sammy, Johan Botha and others?
It’s amazing. You get to learn so much from these players. If we get more opportunities, like play leagues or play against big teams, you learn a lot. You always learn from the best players and the knowledge they have is unbelievable. You never think of that. So, Daren Sammy told me about players like Chris Gayle – how they plan their innings, how they target the bowlers etc. I usually I just play according to the ball. I never plan things like who I am going to target, who I’m going to watch out.
Video Courtesy: Hong Kong Cricket on YouTube
The mental thing, you learn so much from them and the Blitz is always…when you play in our own league, we play against each other, the franchises, in front of our families. It is a different thing. It has unfortunately stopped at the moment, but we are hopeful it will start again soon.
Of course, your association with Sammy continued even in the Canadian Global T20 League, for Toronto Nationals which also featured Steve Smith. Did you get any batting tips from him?
I have already told you, that those players are one of the best in the world. If you watch them closely, that’s enough. You learn so much – where they hit the ball, how their feet move and how they build their innings and how they plan in training. Steve Smith used to hit like 100 balls. I remember, in one net session I just went for half an hour and Smith batted for a whole session, whole two hours. I told myself, they’re the best but how hard they work! Smith batted like for almost 50 overs and he was preparing for a T20 game. It’s amazing. These are things we need to learn and we need to practice. The more you hit the ball, the more you are going to get better. Some players are different, but you learn different things from each and every player. They were very good. Smith he was very positive, he was always talking, he was telling how good associate cricket is. He is a big player.
Daren Sammy – always is a very chilled guy, he is very friendly he is a different environment player. He also taught us a lot. He is the one who picked me for Global T20. I got chances but I didn’t perform well. It was my first franchise outside of Hong Kong. I was a bit nervous to be playing against Chris Gayle – those big players. The experience gives you lessons, you learn and you do well next time.
We know you are a big-hitter, but have you also been working on your legspin of late as well? After all, they fetched you three wickets in the historic game against Bangladesh in the 2014 World T20. Would you like to bowl more in matches?
I haven’t been bowling much over the last two years, I was just focusing on my batting. I have started my bowling again. I am working on my bowling as well. Bowling is one of my weapons that I can give 7 to 8 overs in 50-over formats and 2 to 3 overs in T20. I believe in myself that I can be a main spinner in my team as I used to be. I am working on it and I’m sure I am going to be able to bowl in the next tournament.
Hong Kong did well in the 2020 ACC Eastern Region T20 and have now booked a place for themselves in the Asia Cup T20 Qualifiers. What are the positives you think you can take away from the tournament?
We are a young side now. We are very disciplined. Trent Johnston has put in lots of effort. We have changed a lot. We have been coming to training half an hour early, getting ourselves ready, and wearing the right uniform. Those things make a big difference. The discipline is very important. The main one was honest…how honest we are. We have to be honest with where we are standing and how we are going to improve, what areas we need to work on. We did really well in the World Cup Qualifiers as well, we did really well in World Cricket League (WCL), and we came second.
The last tournament we played in Thailand ACC Eastern Region T20, we qualified for the next round. If we keep going in the right path – the way we are training, the way our discipline is now, the players’ attitude. This attitude will drive Hong Kong cricket forward. Credit goes to all our coaches – Trent Johnston, Javed Iqbal, Mark Farmer – our cricket director. They are doing a really good job. They are looking after us. We are professional players, we are getting physios, skill-training, we are getting everything. In Hong Kong our facilities are very less, but Cricket Hong Kong (CHK) have done really well to provide us. We are getting ready and our main aim is to get the ODI status back.
We are working very hard and the way we are going, I’m sure we will go into the World Cup Qualifiers and then hopefully get the ODI status. We have to play three rounds – we already won in Oman, we came in second. Uganda is ahead of us. We need to make sure in the next two rounds, we have to beat each and every team to become top. For associate cricket every tournament is a pressure tournament. If you don’t do well, you’re going to face another 2-3 years setback.
In the recent past, we've seen the likes of Mark Chapman and most recently Anshuman Rath move on to forge a cricket career elsewhere. Have you at any point considered doing the same?
My aim was to play for a country. To be honest, I would love to go, I would love to play better and big level cricket. For me the thing is my family, I am the guy who supports my family. So, I have to be in Hong Kong. If I go to Pakistan…I can go to Pakistan, play club, regional level and if I perform, I can get picked for first-class. From there you never know how things happen. My family is my first priority and cricket is always there with me. Anshuman is different – he is not married – he can give time for cricket. I’m married and have to make sure that I look after my family. Those two (Rath and Chapman) have done really well for Hong Kong. Mark Chapman has played for New Zealand now. Anshuman is working very hard to play for India. So it’s a good thing for us. Chapman has played with me since Under-13 level. Anshuman is a bit junior than me but he did really, really well for Hong Kong.
I recently spoke to Anshuman, he wished me on my birthday few days ago (July 8). With the things going on in India, he is in lockdown at the moment. He has been trying really hard to be picked in the Ranji Trophy. I’m sure once he gets picked for that, I have so much confidence in him that the way his ability – mentally, physically – he is a competitive cricketer. I’m sure he’ll do well in Ranji Trophy and never know one day he’ll play in the IPL and then he’s going to forget Nizakat Khan!