Until October last, when the only cricket ground in north China opened at a British college in Beijing, homesick expats batted on indoor basketball courts or school grounds shrouded in smog. But the Chinese even took their cricket practice sessions to the Great Wall.
“Cricket is a newborn baby in China,” says Liu Rongyao, secretary-general of the Chinese Cricket Association (CCA) in Beijing. By 2010, the Chinese want this baby to be a prodigy when cricket debuts in the Asian Games in southern Guangzhou.
On a target of breeding 1,50,000 cricket players by 2020 — up from 10,000 today —cricketers like the China women’s team captain Mei Chunhua, 23, have trained at the speed of a bullet train, with cricket rules translated into Mandarin. Her heroes — Wasim Akram and Imran Khan — are from China’s all-weather ally Pakistan.
Mei, who started playing cricket in 2006, is a marketing professional and studies downloads of the ICC World Twenty20 matches and DVDs distributed by former Pakistan test player and China’s national coach Rashid Khan.
Inside India’s largest neighbour, few have heard of Sachin Tendulkar, but Mei’s team will get an Indian female coach later this year. Plans are on for a consignment of cricket equipment from the Board of Control for Cricket in India to be sent this year.
In April, China’s second-most populous province Shandong — famous for its rugby players — became its seventh region to officially promote cricket, and Khan will focus on training in 30 schools here.
Behind the ambition to quickly master this ‘noble game’ or shen shi yun dong, is a desire to bat for the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics by 2020 and a secret hope to use cricket to beat the US medal count someday. “Cricket should be in the Olympics,’’ says Rongyao.
This month, a national search to handpick the team for the Asian Games began with six Chinese coaches led by Khan scouting secondary schools, colleges and universities in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shenyang and the university town of Tianjin near Beijing.
But since 2004 when China officially joined the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) —which promotes cricket here as a ‘special project’— it has trained just over 100 active coaches. Even they are still learning. “We currently have only a temporary national team,” says Zhang Tian, CCA deputy secretary-general.
China believes that as a country with one-fifth of the world’s people, it can surely find a world-class eleven.
The players are full-time students or professionals. Tournaments are held on weekends to avoid disturbing academics, and the masses are hardly curious. “Our playing level is still quite low, unlike India’s,’’ admits Rongyao. “Most of our players and coaches are amateurish. The players are students first, who cannot ignore studies.’’
However, ACC is sure of returns on the investment. “Global revenues for cricket will increase by 30-40 per cent once China becomes an established cricketing nation either as a venue, participant or breeding ground for future cricketers in the decades ahead,’’ the ACC website quotes its chief executive Syed Ashraful Huq as saying.
Cricket is aligned with rugby in China’s Multi-ball Games Administrative Center, but is packaged as a safe sport. Children above seven are trained, and teachers are groomed as coaches to train students on campus. “It builds up character, emphasises eye-hand coordination. It is popular because it is helpful physically, psychologically, for children,’’ says Zhang.
The ACC website quotes its China development officer Rumesh Ratnayake saying that he has never seen children learn cricket as quickly as in China. On that strength, China aims to have 15,000 cricketers by 2009, and 60,000 by 2012, with an equal number of umpires and coaches. “This is China. They can do anything once they make up their minds,’’ says Ian Renwick, chairman of the three-year-old Beijing Cricket Club.
In 2006, after the International Cricket Council’s chief executive Malcolm Speed evaluated cricket in China, he was quoted saying that he foresees China playing in the World Cup 2015.