Tim writes for The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, ESPNCricinfo, and is a contributor for The New Statesman. He was named CMJ Young Journalist of the Year in 2015 and is co-author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts
Ryan Campbell was always a man ahead of his time. In the Sheffield Shield, he was a pioneering attacking opener who showed contempt for the convention of seeing off the new ball.
In one fixture in 1997, he thrashed 100 off 86 balls after the opposition had taken more than 100 overs to make 205. Five years later, he impudently unveiled the scoop, which he hadn’t even practised in the nets, against Sri Lanka A.
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Twenty20 could have made Campbell a very rich man.
He had the panache, the six-appeal and the thrilling range of shots. But he was born a decade too soon to enjoy the T20 bounty and, despite 10 Sheffield Shield hundreds, had Adam Gilchrist to blame for restricting his Australia career to two ODIs. He retired aged 34, a few days after making 55 in his second and final game of Australian domestic T20. Thereafter, he was only glimpsed in the dying embers of the Indian Cricket League.
After a stint as a television commentator, Campbell moved to Hong Kong in 2012 to work as player-coach for Kowloon Cricket Club. There, he plundered even international bowlers in league cricket, and once thrashed 303 not out, from only 107 balls.
As Campbell’s involvement in Hong Kong cricket deepened, working as batting coach, so Cricket Hong Kong officials began mooting an international comeback, knowing that he would qualify just before the World T20 and yearning for experience; Hong Kong have the youngest side in the entire competition.
So when Hong Kong came to pick their squad for the WT20, Campbell was included. When he walked out against Zimbabwe, it was his first international game for more than 13 years, an age before T20 and the Iraq War. He was not merely the oldest T20I debutant, but the oldest ever man to play a T20I.
Even more incongruous than the sight of a 44-year-old Australian former keeper-batsman taking the field for Hong Kong was the sight of him bowling. Campbell’s first delivery was a gentle looping full toss, severely flattered to only be bunted down the ground for a single.
Thereafter his off-spin settled into a pleasing rhythm. Bowling around the wicket and wide of the crease, Campbell cramped the batsmen for room, dared to flight the ball, and turned it just enough to make himself hard to line up. Four precise overs yielded only two boundaries.
While his economical bowling was a pleasant surprise, it was for his license to thrill with that bat that Hong Kong enlisted Campbell. Opening the batting, he defended his first ball ostentatiously to cover: an atypical shot for a man reinvented as Hong Kong’s elder statesman.
A slow wicket did not play to Campbell’s panache with the bat; nor did Zimbabwe’s opening bowlers allow him room to flay his arms. Campbell was picked to provide ballast from ball one but looked incapable of doing so.
From his first 10 balls, he mustered only three singles. He fared even worse from his 11th: a short ball from Tinashe Panyangara crashed into his helmet. Panyangara is a worthy seamer but one of no great pace: if he could habitually discomfort Campbell with the short ball on such a stodgy pitch, it bode ill for the success of his comeback.
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The next delivery was a touch shorter. Now Campbell met it with a nonchalant pull shot that oozed contempt for the delivery, and the hope that it would awaken him from his slumber.
The hope did not last long.
Campbell immediately returned to awkward inside edges and ungainly mistimed shots. When he was dismissed, holing out meekly to mid-on, it was just as well for Hong Kong: his nine runs had occupied 19 painful deliveries, with not even a token attempt to "reclaim" the ramp shot, as Campbell had vowed to do before the tournament.
How he, and Hong Kong, must have rued that he could not get enough time off from his commitments with Kowloon to play in the Asia T20 Cup qualifiers three weeks ago, when he could have made his international comeback in less onerous circumstances.
As he walked back to the dressing room, Campbell’s head remained bowed and shielded in his helmet.
In that image nestled a truth: Hong Kong’s batting coach has copious work to do to make his unlikely international return a fulfilling one.