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Big-bang Babar quietly takes Hong Kong forward

Babar Hayat scored 16 off the last five balls in a win against Afghanistan that took Hong Kong to the 2016 World T20 ICC/Sportsfile

In Chinese culture, perhaps there are fewer symbols that are more well-known to outsiders than the yin and the yang. It represents the balance between opposite forces to keep things in harmony.

Babar Hayat, the 26-year-old Hong Kong captain, is an embodiment of such duelling dualities. "I'm a quiet person," he says in matter-of-fact manner during a sit-down interview with ESPNcricinfo ahead of the World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe.

That's putting it mildly. Despite his imposing physical presence and reputation as one of the biggest hitters on the Associate scene, it takes some effort to coax words out of Hayat. Yet, his resume speaks for itself.

Leading scorer in the most recent edition of the ICC Intercontinental Cup. Three centuries in his first six first-class matches. Third overall in runs in the WCL Championship. Hitting 16 off the final over to beat Afghanistan in a T20I for the first time, at the 2015 World T20 Qualifier in Ireland, and sending Hong Kong to the World T20 in India.

Those are heady accomplishments for someone who never really had any ambition to become a professional cricketer, let alone captain his adopted homeland when he first arrived on Hong Kong shores as a 15-year-old. The transformation from a once timid boy to a quiet yet confident man - especially with a bat in hand - was made possible through hard work, grit and perseverance over the last 11 years.

"When I started playing cricket, nobody knew me. I didn't have any fame," Hayat says of the path that led him to where he is today. Growing up in Attock, Pakistan, he played tape-ball cricket regularly, but when his father, a banker who had been living on and off in Hong Kong for 45 years, took the family to the island for good, Hayat had never played with a seasoned leather ball.

Hayat didn't know any English, or Cantonese either, when he found himself in Kowloon as a teenager. He was shy to begin with, and the language barrier made his transition to a new homeland more challenging. Enrolling at the Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College for his high school years in Hong Kong gave him a small buffer, allowing him to interact with students who might know Urdu, and also provided him a gateway into a whole new cricket community.

"It's a culture within our dressing room where people tend to gravitate toward the best player, and that's why we looked at Babar as being one of those characters" Simon Cook, Hong Kong head coach

"It was the first or second week of school and he was playing tape-ball cricket," Aizaz Khan, a former high school classmate of Hayat's and long-time Hong Kong team-mate, says of their first interaction, just a few weeks after Hayat had arrived in Hong Kong.

"We had a big ground and I saw him smacking some big sixes. He looked very good and played some big shots and I was thinking whether I can get him to play in the Under-17 club team of ours since I was the captain.

"I spoke to his cousin, who was in the same school, and asked, 'Can you get Babar to play for us?' Babar was new and didn't really know anybody there. The first game he went there, he scored 40-plus and hit some huge sixes. The coach got him to play in the Sunday senior league. Since then, Babar's been scoring runs everywhere."

Though he had only newly begun playing with a hard ball, it didn't take long for Hayat to make his presence felt in Hong Kong's domestic scene. In his second season playing in the Sunday premier division, he was named Player of the Year while representing Vagabonds CC. In demand, he was recruited to join the prestigious Kowloon CC for his third season, but Hayat says that despite the glamour, his still limited English language skills left him feeling uncomfortable in his surroundings, prompting a move to Little Sai Wan CC, where he got to work with former Hong Kong captain Munir Dar.

"They had a good structure while building up youngsters, Little Sai Wan," Hayat says. "They always wanted young guys to come up, and gave chances. When we played club cricket in Hong Kong, we played four to five U-16 guys in the team in the high-standard premier league. When they grew up, after three or four years, they'd get better."

Those opportunities as a teenager helped put him on the Hong Kong selection radar for junior teams. But he could not go to the 2010 U-19 World Cup in New Zealand - having migrating in 2007, he was just short of the required four years of residency to qualify for his new home. He did, however, make his senior team debut a year later as a 19-year-old, opening the batting while surrounded by 15,000 screaming Nepal fans at the 2011 Asian Cricket Council Twenty20 Cup in Kathmandu.

"That was my first tour and I was shocked when I saw all the people around," Hayat says.

"It was really tough for me to play for Hong Kong. Every time when I would go to bat, I was feeling nervous. You can say I was not a proper cricketer. They just sent me as a floater, and I'd open with Irfan Ahmed. That was not a great tour for me. I did not perform for my first three or four tours."

Part of the lack of confidence was the way in which his raw skillset, honed by tennis-ball bashing, was exposed against higher-class bowling.

"When I first saw him in the national set-up, he was a player who could control a game but didn't have the skills to do that, to bat for long periods of time," says Simon Cook, Hong Kong head coach, who first came across Hayat on the club scene in his previous position as head coach at Hong Kong Cricket Club. "He didn't have the technique."

Though his defence in particular was unrefined, Hayat's mental toughness began to emerge as a dependable trait. It first showed up at the 2013 World T20 Qualifier in the UAE during a knockout match against Papua New Guinea. Having lost a final-ball heartbreaker to Nepal in the previous playoff match, Hong Kong had a second crack at clinching a maiden berth at a major ICC global tournament a day later. However, they needed to do it without captain Jamie Atkinson, who was injured in the loss to Nepal. The task became even more difficult when they collapsed to 19 for 4 inside the first four overs after choosing to bat.

Hayat started to rebuild the innings, first with his Little Sai Wan club team-mate Dar in a 35-run stand. A match-defining 62-run partnership with future New Zealand international Mark Chapman followed, and Hayat's 48 off 47 balls carried Hong Kong out of trouble and to an eventual 29-run win.

Two summers later, at the next World T20 qualifier, in Ireland, Hayat would conjure up an even greater escape against Afghanistan, a team they had not beaten in six previous attempts in T20 cricket. Though Hong Kong had plenty of wickets in hand, the run rate started to climb in the final overs of chasing a target of 162.

"I didn't want to bat. My legs were gone, my hamstrings were tired, my body was sore. I didn't want to play the next game because I was so tired" Hayat on struggling with his fitness

"We controlled for quite a lot of the game and then suddenly it started to get a bit dicey," said Cook, who was then an assistant coach on the Hong Kong staff. "He was batting in the middle order, and coming into the final over I was actually very confident. I said to Charlie Burke, who was head coach, 'As long as Babar is still there when we're facing the last over, we'll still win this.'"

As was the case in Abu Dhabi, Chapman and Hayat steered Hong Kong through a big chunk of the chase against Afghanistan with a 48-run stand, but Chapman fell caught on the boundary on the first ball of the final over, bowled by Mohammad Nabi, leaving 16 off five balls to win. Hayat came on strike for the second ball and clubbed a four and six to make it six off three balls.

A wide and a three followed, putting Hayat's fresh partner, Tanwir Afzal, on strike with two needed off two. A calamitous dropped return chance that ended in a run-out by Nabi allowed Hayat to get back on strike for the final ball, with his old high-school friend Aizaz at the non-striker's end. Despite being known as Hong Kong's biggest basher, Hayat instead showed maturity and clear-headed thinking given the situation.

"When I went in and spoke to him, he wasn't nervous or feeling the pressure," Aizaz said. "He just said he's not gonna go for a big hit, that he'd hit it along the ground, get one first and try to get the second, and that's what happened. Nabi tried to bowl a quicker one and Babar just played it to long-off, toward extra cover, enough so we could get the second run."

Early in 2016, Hong Kong headed to the Asia Cup T20 Qualifier for some crucial preparation ahead of the World T20. Hayat produced the highest score by an Associate player in T20I cricket, making 122 off 60 balls against Oman in a match more infamously remembered for Chapman being mankaded at a key moment in a five-run loss for Hong Kong. However, those involved on the Hong Kong side felt the bigger culprit for the loss was ironically Hayat - his poor fitness, to be precise, in the heat and humidity of Fatullah.

"I was totally gone," Hayat said. "I didn't want to bat. My legs were gone, my hamstrings were tired, my body was sore. I didn't want to play the next game because I was so tired. I didn't want to mention it to the coaches because they knew my fitness wasn't good because I was cramping."

"He ended up on the losing side because he was over 100 kilos in weight and he wasn't able to sustain his innings over 20 overs," Cook said. "At that point, [122] was the third highest T20I score in any nation. So he had a fantastic innings, but his physical condition ended up costing us the game effectively. And it was that innings that cost him from being able to perform in the World T20 because he was so physically exhausted still, three weeks after that innings."

At the opening round of the World T20 in India, Hayat turned in scores of 9, 0 and 15 as Hong Kong went winless. The spillover fitness issues from the Asia Cup hundred against Oman opened his eyes, and prompted the coaching staff to sit him down for a frank discussion.

"It was after those two back-to-back tournaments that we sat down outlining plans for the next four-year cycle," Cook said. "I sat down with Babar at that point in player reviews and said to him: your weight is an issue. That was the time we were just converting to full-time contracts. The skinfolds, yo-yo tests, 20-metre sprints - the players were starting to become more accountable. It was no longer such a club-cricket environment of pitch up, play and go home. We had quite a harsh conversation. He took it on board and really rose to the challenge.

"The combination of a full-time contract, working with the Hong Kong Institute of Sport and their dieticians - he went from just over 100 kilos to 89 or 88 kilos prior to the 2016 WCL round five against Ireland and Scotland."

"Whenever we'd see Babar at the gym, we'd all want to work hard and get fit" Team-mate Aizaz Khan

Aizaz witnessed first-hand the work that Hayat put into shedding the weight. Hayat would often recruit him and one or two others for late-night runs above and beyond the afternoon training routine for squad players.

"Those two or three months, whenever we'd see Babar at the gym, we'd all want to work hard and get fit," Aizaz says.

As his waistline got slimmer, Hayat's run-scoring column got fatter. Early in 2017, he made 173 against Netherlands in their Intercontinental Cup clash, then scored two half-centuries in the one-dayers that followed. At the end of the year, he batted the better part of two days to score an unbeaten 214 against PNG.

"Between where he was in 2014 to where he is now, there's a number of differences. One, he's technically much, much better," Cook said. "In 2014, he wasn't particularly fit. He couldn't bat for 50 overs potentially. His physical condition is much better and his technical ability to bat for long periods of time has allowed his free-scoring intent to now flourish.

"He can keep all the good balls out and continues to score very freely off the balls that are into his strength areas. A key area of development going forward is just giving him the ability to bat for long and not feel like he has to try to take scoring options because it's a matter of time before he gets out."

The mental fortitude Hayat has demonstrated, whether at the crease in key moments during crunch games or in waging a weight-loss battle in the gym, is something he has worked hard at spreading to the rest of his team-mates. It's a trait that helped them in a hard-fought win over Afghanistan in Zimbabwe, their first ODI victory over a Full Member.

If Hong Kong make it through to the Super Sixes, there will be an uphill battle: they will need three wins and some help on tiebreakers to reach the World Cup. An equally daunting challenge may await them in the consolation bracket should they end up there, needing to secure two wins to keep ODI status, and essentially the funding that will keep players like Hayat on full-time professional contracts. Whatever the challenge, the Hong Kong squad will look for Hayat's bat to set the tone.

"What you see is what you get with Babar," Cook said. "He's not one to stand up and give big Churchillian speeches and all of that sort of stuff. He's very much 'lead by example' and the guys do follow him. It's a culture within our dressing room where people tend to gravitate toward the best player and that's why we looked at Babar as being one of those characters. We did feel he had the potential to really become a dominant force in Associate cricket and fortunately that has come true."