Enter the dragon
Liu Pingping is not quite John Buchanan, at least not yet. The 47-year-old schoolteacher from Shanghai has never played cricket in his life, and is yet to even watch a match on TV. A baseball player while in college, Liu is one of the 30 former athletes from other ballgames such as baseball, and from track and field, handpicked to undergo cricket training by the Chinese Cricket Association (CCA). Liu was teaching softball to teenagers in Shanghai's No. 3 Girls Middle School when the CCA approached him.
Liu is now a veteran of three coaching camps, two in Beijing and one in the southern city of Kunming. He is entrusted with the task of imparting instruction on cricket at least twice a week at his school. "Before these camps, I didn't have a clue as to what cricket was all about," says Liu. "All I knew was that it was a sport played by the elite." The girls, who have been learning the game for three months now on tennis courts and hockey pitches, have their own student cricket society. In a year or so, they will know whether cricket, optional at present, will become a permanent subject.
When the mainland formally joined the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) as an affiliate member in 2004, the obstacles were enormous and obvious. There were no cricket players, pitches or equipment outside of the tiny expatriate community. Neither were there any coaches or umpires. There were no British settlers to spread the game among local inhabitants, and as a result awareness about cricket was nearly zero.
What do you do if, as a nation, you are willing to learn cricket, and fast, but can't find a single player in the country to teach the game? If you are China, you come up with a unique plan. You completely invert the way sports like cricket have traditionally spread. You introduce the sport to the nation's schools and colleges in order to spot the talent early. Another nation would have hired foreign coaches and consultants; the Chinese simply decide to develop their own. That there isn't a single local cricket coach or player on the mainland was not perceived as an obstacle. They just handpicked people such as Liu.
Liu's metamorphosis from cricket-illiterate to school coach is typical of how China has always been able to find a way around obstacles. "We believe that all ballgames are similar," says Zhang Tian, external affairs director of the CCA. "The same techniques are prevalent in these different games, and they can be easily transferred." Optimistic yes, but the targets they have set themselves are no less optimistic.
In characteristic Chinese fashion, the CCA had set itself goals: it planned to have 20,000 players and 2,000 coaches by 2015. "By 2009, we envision there will be 720 teams across the country in a well-organised structure, which will allow promising kids from primary schools to move up through the ranks," says Cui Weihong, officer in charge of cricket with the CCA. Cui, however, doesn't confirm the other more optimistic targets previously cited by the media, such as Test status by 2020, qualification for the 2019 World Cup, or ultimately beating India in a Test match.
Two camps were organised in Beijing last year, one of them in conjunction with Cricket Australia and funded by the ACC, and the third in Kunming in February. The instructors were learning the basics of cricket for the first time in their lives. Cricket in China obviously needed to get off the ground quickly, and this was the CCA's idea of a running start. "We are hoping for a quick breakthrough in the sport," says Zhang. "This seemed the simplest way to do it." At the completion of the three coaching camps, the instructors, including Liu, went back to their respective institutions to train their wards.
The next camp will be held in the city of Guangzhou in the southern province of Guangdong, and another one sometime later this year in Liaoning province in the north, so that schools in those two provinces can begin teaching their students as well.
Cui says that there are goals but adds that much depends on how popular the sport becomes. The reason for this guarded approach could have been failure to meet some initial targets. The CCA had planned to start cricket classes in 15 universities, 24 secondary schools and 24 primary schools in four provinces by the autumn of 2005 according to an Indian Express report last year, but so far only 30 institutions in Beijing and Shanghai are teaching the sport.
Teaching the teachers was just the beginning; beyond this lay an enormous amount of work. The kids practise the game twice or thrice a week, either before or after a softball session, but how much they are imbibing is still a matter of conjecture. The instructors who went to the coaching camps were taught cricket for 60 hours over six days; most would admit that it is short of the lifetime of practising and training that most coaches put in. Liu claims he is familiar with pace and spin, with front-foot and back-foot shots, with the drive, the cut and the pull. Since he is primarily a softball coach by profession, it would not be outrageous to envision an entire generation of cross-batted sloggers.
However, the initial signs have been encouraging. The first representative team from China will be sent to an under-15 boys tournament in Thailand in December. Zhang of the CCA is optimistic that the 30 coaches will each be able to set up a cricket team for a six-a-side tournament sometime this year. Cui says that a plot of land in Beijing has been selected for China's first cricket ground, but the CCA are waiting to consult with the ACC about it. Meanwhile the ACC, which is providing the equipment and knowhow to the CCA, is gushing about the future of cricket in China, especially the prospect of 1.3 billion cricket fans. Former Sri Lanka Test player Rumesh Ratnayake, the ACC's Development Officer for China, is impressed by the speed at which the Chinese are coming to grips with the game. "Never in my life have I seen any country's children pick up the game so quickly", he says. "They had the basics of the game - hitting and throwing - within just five minutes."
The most heartening aspect is the faith that the sport's administration in China has, not only in the potential attractions of the game, but also in its benefits. From ban qiu, ("ban" for wooden board, bat, and "qiu" for ball) of the 1850s, the game has now moved to being the shen shi yun dong. (the Noble Game). "The most important thing one can learn from cricket is respect," says Liu. "Respect for your opponents, respect for your team-mates, and respect for your self." And in China, it comes without the colonial baggage as well.
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Ranajit Dam and Wei Jie are journalists with The Shenzhen Daily newspaper in Shenzhen, China