Kary Chan: Captaining Hong Kong; Growing the Game
Kary Chan will captain Hong Kong at the upcoming Women's T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier. She speaks to Jay about her journey, her setbacks and her triumphs
“Because of cricket, I cry a lot. Why do I have to do that? Why I can't just quit cricket and enjoy my life?”
Three years ago, after a string of low scores and expensive, often wicketless, spells, Kary Chan was at her lowest point as a cricketer. It was taking a toll on her.
And she’d just about had enough.
I waited for Kary in a windowless maze of a corridor in Olympic House — home to the offices of Hong Kong’s 44 officially sanctioned sports institutions. It was a short wait. She emerged from a meeting room, imparting generous revolutions on a ball, tossing it up from her left hand to her right as an entourage of colleagues trailed her, struggling to keep pace.
That’s Kary for you.
Despite moving through her days at breakneck speed as she tosses a ball around, she never appears to be rushed. Given her non-stop schedule, this is quite remarkable.
In addition to captaining the national team, she is a Development Officer for Cricket Hong Kong (CHK)**. When Kary isn’t playing cricket, she’s spreading the game to local communities, which often involves visiting schools and universities.
“She has a knack and the ability to make cricket fun for newcomers,” says Ravi Nagdev, CHK’s General Manager for Domestic Cricket and Development, and Kary Chan’s supervisor.
“Whoever comes to our sessions, when they leave, they want more,” he adds.
Nagdev tells me that Kary recently led a 16-week program for residents of Yau Tsim Mong District, arguably the cultural capital of modern-day Hong Kong. There were 22 participants in the program, including 16 girls. He credits Kary with getting five of those 16 ready to play hard ball club cricket within a mere six months of being introduced to the sport.
The success in Yau Tsim Mong was by no means a one-off. CHK’s various outreach initiatives have seen the number of teams in the Women’s League grow from 7 to 12 between 2019 and now. Player participation rates in league cricket have more than doubled from 145 teams in 2019 to 292 teams as per the latest CHK census.
Kary, in addition to being one of Hong Kong’s finest cricketers, is a vital cog in the CHK outreach machine. But she’s also ethnically Chinese.
And that’s a big deal.
A few days before I spoke to her, she was captaining the Bauhinia Stars against the Jade Jets in the Women’s Premier League (WPL), which pits 22 of Hong Kong’s best female cricketers against each other. It’s a higher standard of competition compared to club cricket. Yet, in the absence of club loyalties, crowds are usually smaller.
That was not the case on that particular occasion. Reporters, photographers, and around twenty young girls had flooded into the Tin Kwong Recreation Ground on a scorching summer’s day.
“They’re all here for Kary,” quipped Nagdev as he walked by me.
The success of Chinese cricketers like Chan has convinced many young female athletes, some of whom were in that crowd during the WPL, that cricket is more than just that hard-to-understand sport that is played by expats.
Make no mistake: Kary Chan is your everyday Hong Konger from a working-class family. Her father earned a modest wage as a taxi driver, which meant that Chan attended a public school where Cantonese, the local language, was the medium of instruction. In school, she quickly developed a reputation as a natural athlete often playing competitive sports with students two or three grades above her.
In 2010, when Kary was aged 13, former Hong Kong Men’s Coach Lal Jayasinghe visited her school as part of an outreach program, where he was looking for athletes in the ninth grade or above who could be fast-tracked into hardball cricket and eventually into the pathway towards the national team. To no ones surprise, a sole exception was made for Chan who was in the seventh grade at the time.
After just two sessions with tennis balls and plastic bats, and despite her age, Chan was one of Jayasinghe’s first picks to make the transition to hard ball cricket. He saw a point of difference in Chan as a left-handed batter and left-arm spinner, training her to land the ball in the same spot over and over again in the nets before moving on to work on her batting.
Within a year, Chan had started training with the Under-19 team, making sporadic appearances for them in addition to appearances in league cricket. Looking back to the start of her career, Chan is grateful for the support from her father, while understanding why her mother preferred that she focus on academics and her career.
“When I started playing cricket my, my mom thought I play baseball!” recounts Chan as she lets out a laugh.
“On the other hand is my dad. He's a bit different. When he found out I play cricket, he watched cricket videos, he tried to learn about how to play cricket, he would come to watch my games, and also, when I had training in the morning…he would drop me off and then he would start work.”
Jayasinghe would soon emigrate to Australia just as Kary was being integrated into the senior national team set up. Much like Jayasinghe, Charlie Burke, Hong Kong’s Head Coach at the time identified Kary as someone who could play a key role for the national team going forward. He named her as a non-playing member of a squad of 15 for the 2012 Asia Cup in Guangzhou, which also featured Full Members India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.
“The whole tour I was a reserve. But [Burke] said ‘Kary, now you're not in the game, but what you learn now because you're sitting outside…you can see the whole picture. You’ve got me next to you. I can explain to you what’s happening. I can teach you more,” she recalls.
Three months later, Burke pushed her up to open the batting against the UAE in the 2013 ACC Women’s Championship. The faith shown in Kary was an investment in the future, and her rise to prominence was by no means meteoric. In her first two years of international cricket, she didn’t always get to bowl and she was often dismissed for single digit scores.
Unlike her older and more experienced teammates, Kary still had a lot to learn about performing at the international level. Luckily, the likes of veteran off-spinning all-rounder Betty Chan and fellow left-arm spinner Chan Sau Ha helped her to hone her batting and bowling, respectively.
“I remember I had one tour. I had to go out to bat, and [Betty] just brought me to the other side and then taught me how to bat. She told me ‘Don’t worry about it. Just stay there. Use your feet and hit the ball,” recounts Kary.
Betty’s advice worked. In the 2016 domestic season, Chan pummeled 132 in the Women’s T20 Cup playing for Craigengower Cricket Club Fung Wong, a team comprised entirely of ethnically Chinese players.
Later that year, aged just 19, Kary was rewarded for her consistency by being appointed Hong Kong’s Vice-Captain. It was a classic case of student turned master.
“When I talk about that, they [Betty and Chan Sau Ha] say ‘shhh shhh,” jokes Kary, embarrassed on behalf of her teammates. It was quite a turnaround for someone who, just two years earlier, was far from the first name on Hong Kong’s team sheet.
However, that was around the time that impostor syndrome had begun to kick in. She felt she was too young to lead a group of people older and more experienced than her. As a result, her returns with both bat and ball started to dip.
And so did her confidence.
While I was humbled by her candor, I was surprised to learn that someone so confident, an omnipresent figure in Hong Kong cricket and the captain of the Women’s national team, had been brought to tears by the sport she loved. It brought home the reality that cricket, at the worst of times, can be an isolating sport, even for high-achieving athletes like Kary.
However, Kary’s teammates at the time knew that Kary was a gifted cricketer. They also knew that they had to step up and help their friend out of a temporary, albeit prolonged drop in confidence. Kary credits one of her best friends, top-order batter and CCC Fung Wong teammate Pull To, with supporting her throughout the toughest phase of her career.
“She is really the best! Because we played for the same club, and she was in my high school…We support each other all the time. So every time when we have a ‘give up mind’ then we will talk to each other. Every time when we’re upset about something or mad about something, we will talk with each other,” says Kary.
The support from the likes of Pull To and then skipper Mariko Hill worked wonders. At the 2019 T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier, Kary finished as Hong Kong’s top wicket-taker with 10 scalps in 6 games.
While Hong Kong underwhelmed at the tournament, winning just two of their six games, there was a feeling that Kary began to transition from a promising cricketer to a top-level performer. As Hill’s career outside of cricket started to pick up, Kary, at the age of 22, was appointed Hong Kong’s captain for the East Asia Cup in late 2019. This time, Kary finished as the tournament’s top wicket-taker with 10 wickets in four games.
Kary admits that she has undergone a change in mindset over the last two and a half years and credits current Hong Kong Head Coach and Head of Women’s Cricket, Chris Pickett — more affectionately known as ‘Wilson’ — with this turnaround.
Like it has done for most associates, the pandemic has disrupted Hong Kong’s international fixture list. It’s been nearly two years since the Kary-Chan-led outfit has played international cricket.
However, in that time, Hong Kong’s female cricketers have played close to two full domestic seasons worth of cricket, which will serve them well in the T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier getting underway on Monday 22nd November in Dubai.
Along with hosts UAE, the tournament features Malaysia, Bhutan, Kuwait, and the much-fancied Nepal. The winner of that tournament will advance to next year’s Global Qualifier for the 2023 T20 World Cup.
In spite of missing first-team regulars Pull To and Dorothea Chan due to work commitments, Hong Kong are looking stronger than they did in the 2019 iteration of the Asia Qualifier, where they won just two of their six games. In fact, even in the absence of the experienced trio, this is arguably the strongest squad Hong Kong has ever put out.
In a remarkable testament to the commitment of Kary and her team, ten out of the 14-member squad will be quarantining for 21 days upon returning to Hong Kong, which has some of the world’s strictest quarantine restrictions for inbound travelers.
In a further illustration of CHK’s growing commitment to women’s cricket, they will be hosting the 2022 Fairbreak Invitational in May 2022. It will be the world’s first privately funded tournament in women’s cricket history with healthcare group Gencor as the lead sponsor.
In recent weeks, CHK and FairBreak Global have announced the signings of India T20 skipper Harmanpreet Kaur, former Pakistan skipper Sana Mir, and South African all-rounder Marizanne Kapp. Over the next few months, many more high-profile signings are expected. Kary is one of many Hong Kong players who will be taking the field alongside some of the best female cricketers in the world.
“I really can't wait for it!” Kary exclaims as she lets out the widest smile of the day.
“FairBreak Global is a very big event for women’s cricket because that's what FairBreak wants to push: to tell people that women’s players [are also] very nice to watch…And also, because it's hosted in Hong Kong, I think it's good to let the players know that we can play with other very high-level players from different countries. So it’s very good for us to learn more from them, and promote women’s cricket.”
There is a strong feeling among players, administrators, and supporters that this could be the start of a golden era for the women’s game in Hong Kong.
Without a doubt, Kary Chan, both as a player and as a tireless promoter of the game, has already made an invaluable contribution to Hong Kong cricket.
** In the weeks following this interview, Kary Chan moved to a new role as Head of Women’s Cricket at the Hong Kong Cricket Club (HKCC)
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