A tall and athletic sportsman who converted from volleyball to cricket at the age of 28 led HT inside the sports university that produces most of China’s national cricket team.
Former volleyballer Ge Tao, who had never watched a cricket match until officials selected him for a crash course in 2006, now coaches the Chinese national women’s team.
We walked past pony-tailed women playing rugby in the biting cold. We peered inside a room with dancing men in black tights supervised by a woman tapping a red cane. Dozens of students were at work on basketball and badminton courts.
Games were in progress on about 100 ping pong tables in the Shenyang Sports University. There was no cricket pitch in sight.
"I knew nothing about cricket except that India and Pakistan are good at it," said Ge Tao, a fan of Harbhajan Singh who practised his cricket with video games.
We sat down to discuss cricket — in the volleyball staff room.
Shenyang, a Hyderabad-sized vertical city in the northeast, is China’s new cricket factory.
Chinese cricketers are being churned out of its sports university renowned for producing winter Olympics champions more than suntanned players.
Communist officials market cricket as shen shi yundong — the ‘noble game’ — of Englishmen to convince schools and parents to enroll students in the coaching classes taught by physical education teachers who were given a few days to master the basics.
Cricket is biding its time in China since it arrived five years ago. “If cricket enters the Olympics it will transform into a mass phenomenon in China,’’ Zhang Tian, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Cricket Association, told HT in his office on a Beijing street lined with Olympics bureaus.
Imagine an India-China face-off in the distant future. “Global revenues for cricket will increase by 30-40% once China becomes an established cricketing nation either as a venue, participant or breeding ground for cricketers in the decades ahead,” the Asian Cricket Council website quotes its chief executive Syed Ashraful Huq saying.
Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning province which has a history of sports. Most cricketers are Liaoning locals. At age 17-18, players are being pulled out of basketball, soccer, table-tennis and volleyball departments to play cricket, a sport with no career prospects yet.
“The short-term goal is developing the women’s team,’’ said Zhang. “The long-term goal is the men’s team because continuity is important. The men start playing under 19 years and continue for some more years. The women drop out of cricket after graduation.”
Shenyang cricketers are born bowling tennis balls at yellow and blue plastic stumps on indoor volleyball courts.
Equipment gifted from Pakistan and India is in short supply so the players wait excitedly for a tournament and the chance to don cricket gear.
“I dream of the day cricket will be as popular in China as it is in India,’’ said national womens’ captain Wang Meng, who learnt to bowl when she was 18. The Saurav Ganguly fan had to relearn basics like her running speed and technique to transit from a small volleyball court to a vast cricket field.
The men’s captain Wang Lei towered above her in the staff room. The former basketball player said that once he was roped into the batting order he practised at home with a floor mop and tennis ball.
The two captains laughed as they narrated their hardscrabble initiation into a sport that baffles their families, which ask why the players just run up and down. But the young pioneers are determined that China will surprise the world of cricket a decade from now.
“We are a fighting unit, like soldiers,’’ said women’s captain Wang. “Fielding should be as solid and intricate as the Great Wall, the greatest military rampart in ancient China.”
On a breakfast of dumplings and congee, (porridge) they trained intensively for the Asian Games in Guangzhou last year.
China’s first cricket ground was prepared in southern Guangzhou for cricket’s debut in the event. The girls wept when they lost the bronze to arch rivals Japan.
Pakistan has usurped India in cricket diplomacy with China. Javed Miandad is cricket ambassador to the world’s most populous country where the sport is virtually unknown despite its frenzied worship across the border in India. Rashid Khan coaches the Chinese men’s team.
Indian Mamatha Maben coached the women’s team ahead of the Asian Games. Asked what she remembers about India, Wang described a ‘beautiful cricket ground’ and ‘people playing cricket everywhere’. Her team briefly trained in India in Punjab and Guntur in 2009 and 2010. There are no more plans to collaborate.
“The Indians and Chinese communicated with mostly sign language,’’ said Ge, the team’s only English speaker. When they said farewells, a few Indian girls shed tears. Bringing Indian cricket stars to China sounds good for diplomacy but officials point out that the Chinese won’t even recognise them.
The two captains are preparing for new jobs as official coaches to tour Chinese schools and create cricketers. “Someday, I hope China will play against India in the World Cup,’’ said Wang. “We will win.’’