It’s very early as I arrive onto the concourse of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport. I feel rather awkward in my bright red blazer on top of a white shirt with a red tie. This is the official uniform for Vietnamese athletes and our attire for travel to Malaysia.
It takes me all of about ten seconds once inside the terminal to spot the team, all attired as I am. Because of the size of the group we stand out and many other travelers look over us curiously, wondering who we are and what were doing. We look so official.
I see a couple of European looking backpackers look at me frowning wondering why there is a white guy with an all Asian team. They ask who we are, I nod and smile at them and proudly say we are the Vietnamese cricket team. I’m as happy and proud as could be. They reply back by asking me 'What is cricket?"
Vietnams people are curious by nature and they love to talk and gossip. As they spy the team in the official uniform for SEA Games in the airport several of them come over to the team and myself, asking polite questions about who we are and what we’re doing. The team reply as enthusiastically as I had earlier but when they reply with ‘we’re the Vietnamese cricket team’ all they get back are blank looks.
Nobody knows what cricket is here. Nobody knows who we are or what we've been through.
As we wait in the airports departure hall I take each player aside, one by one and hand them a hand-written note. It’s been written completely in Vietnamese, courtesy of my partner who spent days translating these letters I decided to write to each of the players . They are all different messages, conveying a sense of pride, of thanks, some words of encouragement and others to light a fire in their belly. I know full well we are walking into an impossible battle and want to give them as much inspiration as I can. Perhaps I got carried away with emotion, but my love for these boys has grown very much and in these letters I sing to them trying to help them realise they are about to go to another level.
Arrival into KL.
We arrive into K.L, and being in uniform and wearing our security tags we are met by an official who tells us she is our representative here at the airport. We all feel special as we are ushered into a special line for Athlete’s Only at the airport, which, given the size of KL airport customs and the massive line, was a welcome treat.
We get rushed straight through, along the way getting handed gifts from officials which are specially designed pendants to commemorate the games.
We head straight for the hotel, the team have already been organised into their rooms so we give them an hour to freshen up, another hour for lunch and tell them to meet us down at level 2 at 2pm as we have a surprise for them waiting in the conference room.
Angelo, the two Dungs and I have a management meeting over lunch, before Angelo and I retreat to level two to prepare the surprise we have. It’s about 1.30pm and every member of the team is already waiting for us outside the doors to the conference room. It’s not often I can say they turn up on time, let alone early. I can guess they’re excited, anticipating what surprise it is we have waiting for them. I think they know what it is anyway.
I tell them to wait outside a moment as I duck inside with Angelo. Thankfully the detailed request that we made weeks earlier looks fulfilled. There are two, heavily plastic wrapped, pallets clearly marked ‘Vietnam Cricket Team’ resting inside the conference room door.
Angelo and I smile at each other. The presents for the kids have arrived.
We look the plastic wrapped pallets over wondering where to start, I shoot a look at Angelo and he responds, “Should we just let them in?”
I nod. It’ll take us half an hour to unwrap and unpack this so I call the boys in earlier, make some silly deliberation about how lucky they are and then proceed to allow them to tear away at the pallets.
What’s contained in those pallets is every conceivable piece of equipment we’ve ever wanted. Brand new. There are fifteen pairs of spikes, all with a player’s name on it and the team rapidly try to sort out who belongs to what before sitting on the floor and trying on their new shoes for the first time. They've never worn spikes before.
I’m more interested in the four, grade 1 willow bats that I ordered, top of the range best we could get cricket bats. I pull them out of the burgeoning piles of scraps for closer inspection and am pleased of all the work we've done to get these bats.
The conference room at the hotel, within twenty minutes of us entering was completely littered with plastic wrap, styrofoam, paper, cardboard and the new kit for the Vietnam Cricket Team. It was like watching kids at Christmas.
Pads for your legs, arms, chest, head. Balls, OMG balls and brand new ones! Maybe it was Christmas for me too!
Lets see what a real cricket field looks like.
Later that evening was to be the first scheduled game of the tournament of the twenty20 competition. We enter Kinrara oval for the first time in our team tracksuits. It’s not my first time to the stadium but for the team it is and they marvel at the quality of the ground, its stadium and the beautiful pitch under lights. I tell them that this is what a proper cricket ground looks like and they all smile, I can see they’re pumped to get out there and play.
We take to the stands and watch from the crowd of a few thousand as Malaysia pack 200+ runs onto Myanmar. As the game progresses my attention turns to the team, to adjudge their reactions. I can see the tension mounting inside them as they realise everything they knew from training in Vietnam did not compare to the quality on show here. This is an upgrade. It’s one thing to tell them what to expect, it's another thing for them to be smack bang in the middle of a stadium, the crowd roaring, and seeing the quality of cricket being played.
I know they know the enormity of the task ahead.
The next morning the team are up early and on a bus into Kelab Aman, a beautiful cricket ground in the city with Malaysia’s skyscrapers as a backdrop.
We don’t have a game for another two days so have come to Malaysia especially early so I could train the boys on turf wickets for the first time. In Vietnam we never had the ability to train on this kind of surface so it is paramount to their preparation they get some time in,
We spend two full days on the grass, learning the intricacies of playing on a new surface and testing out the new equipment. The Captain agrees with the quality of the new bats by depositing two cricket balls into the gleaming outer glass of the stadium. Angelo is rather upset at having to fork out a few hundred dollars to pay for the damage but inside I’m secretly chuffed at the accomplishment, the Captain can hit a ball.
After a busy couple of days training we decide to give the team the last afternoon off before tomorrow's first big game by taking them on a little travel excursion to one of Kuala Lumpar most famous sites The Batu Caves.
Everyone is all fun and smiles as they get to be tourists for a short little while and I am hopeful to have given them a reprieve from the games a mind can play the night before a big game.
The wait is finally over, the preparation is done. Tomorrow we will be tested, blooding ourselves at the international level for the very first time.