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Friday, 10 February 2017

After 150 years, Japan is finally falling in love with cricket

It is a scene that will be familiar to cricket lovers the world over: furious running between the stumps after the smack of leather on willow, applause for a well executed cover drive, and cheers for a rare six.

Yet the shouts of encouragement from the edge of the boundary are in Japanese, and the aural backdrop is provided by countless cicadas nestling unseen in the trees.

Out in the middle, Japan’s batsmen are making a late attempt to close in on the 148 run target set by their opponents, West Kathmandu cricket club, in their Twenty20 match in Sano, a town of 120,000 people in Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo.

In a country where baseball is king, cricket was for many years a sporting curio, of interest mainly to a small number of Japanese expats who had been transferred to cricketing nations by their employers.

While the Japanese public has not taken cricket to their hearts as they have other “foreign” sports – baseball, football and rugby – the idea that Japan could one day compete in a major international tournament no longer sounds as preposterous as it would have done just a few years ago.

In November, the Sano ground – the first dedicated cricket pitch in Japan to meet international standards – will host Japan, China, South Korea and the Chinese Dragons from Hong Kong in the first ever East Asia Cup.

That Japan’s youthful team – their youngest player is 15 – are aiming to reach the latter stages is proof of how quickly the sport has developed in recent years, according to Naoki Alex Miyaji, chief executive of the Japan Cricket Association.

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“The gap in ability in international tournaments used to be huge,” Miyaji, 37, said. “We didn’t have what it took to build an innings. If we batted first we were lucky to make it through to lunch.”

Miyaji, whose mother is Scottish, fell in love with cricket during childhood summer holidays spent in the UK, before taking it up at Keio university in Tokyo and going on to make his debut for Japan in 2000.

Japanese cricket’s turning point came several years ago when he returned from working in England, eager to share his love of cricket with his compatriots. To his amazement, local authorities and businesses, desperate to arrest population decline and bring more visitors to the area, agreed to support his plans to turn Sano into Japan’s first “cricket town”.
Cricket being played in the foreground of Mount Fuji, Japan.

The country’s cricketing roots stretch back to 1863, when British merchants and Royal Navy officers played a friendly match on a grassless patch of land in Yokohama. Over the next 150 years, though, Japan would discover a passion for baseball through commercial and diplomatic contact with the US. Cricket was limited to occasional matches between expat communities in Yokohama and another port city, Kobe.

Cricket did not register in Japan’s sporting firmament until the early 1980s, when inquisitive Japanese university students teamed up with foreign students to form an amateur league.

The formation of the national team in 1986 was the catalyst for a dramatic improvement in the game’s fortunes in a country where many people still confuse cricket with croquet. In 2000, the national team reached a milestone of sorts when they scored 100 runs for the first time in a 50-over match.

Japan, an associate member of the International Cricket Council, is now home to an estimated 3,000 players and 200 teams, including those for U15s, women and university students, in every region of the country. Kanto, where Sano is located, is considered the sport’s spiritual home, with five pitches and plans for the international ground to host 180 matches by the end of the year.

When the MCC toured in 2009, Sano’s cricketers used the opportunity to take the sport into local schools. “The schools around here weren’t that keen before, but when we told them that some important gentlemen from England were coming, they were interested,” Miyaji said.

Coaches from Australia now visit several times a year to teach children of all ages attending more than half of Sano’s 28 schools. “If you’re a kid in Sano, there’s a very good chance you’ve played cricket at least once,” he added.

Despite its roots in the British empire, cricket fits easily into the typical Japanese sports fan’s preoccupation with technique and form, and their fascination with statistics and records. “Cricket is not a sport you can understand just by watching it,” said Miyaji.

“You need to make the effort to learn about it properly, and the Japanese love that. But if you break it down to its basic components, cricket is deceptively simple. Baseball matches can be very low scoring, but in, say, a T20 cricket match, there are always lots of runs.”

As the match in Sano draws to a close, Japan’s battling middle order are struggling to close in on the Nepalese, who win by a comfortable 51 runs and take the three-match series 2-1.

“This is a renewal phase for the Japanese team,” said Chris Thurgate, the match’s Australian umpire and a board member of the Japan cricket association. “There’s genuine competition for places in the national team now that we’ve expanded the player base and there are more junior players coming through.”

Japan’s 33-year-old captain, Masaomi Kobayashi, hadn’t witnessed a single over of cricket until curiosity prompted him to start playing at university.

“This is a young side, so we have a lot to look forward to,” said Kobayashi, still kicking himself after being stumped early in his innings. “Our immediate aim is to become one of the top three or four teams in the region.

“But our dream is to one day make the qualifying rounds of the World Cup.”

(Source: Guardian)

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