July 14, 2012

One-sixty in Singapore

Richard Browne
There is a huge amount of interest in cricket in the city state, where the game has been around for over a century and a half. With some more funds, it could become a serious contender among ICC Associates

The Singapore Cricket Club (SCC), the spiritual home of cricket in the city state, manages to be both a charming reminder of a bygone, more leisurely age and a forward-thinking progressive institution. The club house has changed little since Lord Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 on the Municipal Building steps overlooking the Padang, its club ground, but the backdrop of skyscrapers that appeared in the 1980s is indicative of a country that has the highest percentage of disposable dollar millionaires in the world. The attractive aesthetics of the ground, with the old and the new sitting in harmony, reflect the country as a whole.

Cricket has had to fight hard to find an identity on the island since Singapore's independence from Britain in 1963, especially amongst the Chinese population. The battle to change the perception of the sport as a colonial game is still being fought, but it has never been in better health.

There are over 100 teams in the domestic league, spread over six divisions, 19 grounds (but only four turf wickets), an average of 35 fixtures a week during the season, 100 registered umpires and scorers, and an expanding nucleus of emerging cricketers. Singapore holds the highest number of officially sanctioned cricket matches of any non-Test playing country in the world. To put this growth in perspective, there were just 14 teams in the Singapore league in 2003.

Things would have been in even better shape had Singapore gained promotion from Division 5 to Division 4 of the Associates Leagues in 2010, as had seemed likely. Along with Nepal and the USA, the team was chasing the coveted two promotion spots, and with Nepal struggling in a must-win match, the champagne was uncorked at the Singapore team hotel. But word had spread amongst the fiercely patriotic Nepalese crowd that should the match finish prematurely, as things stood, Nepal, the host nation, would scrape through on Duckworth-Lewis. With no sign of rain, the estimated 8000-strong crowd set fire to the stands and pelted the players with rocks.

Singapore raised their glasses, reminded of the infamous 1996 World Cup semi-final where India had to forfeit the game because of crowd rioting. But the tournament officials declared the match live, and although the USA were winners on D/L, Nepal scraped through on net run rate.

Prakash Vijaykumar, the first full-time CEO of the Singapore Cricket Association (SCA), says the team is still feeling the effects of the missed opportunity: "We were ready for Division 4 cricket then and are ready for Division 3 now. When you get to third division, you are entitled to a $250,000 high-performance grant from the ICC. The cash injection is needed to take the international game forward in Singapore.

"We have Trevor Chappell as our national coach but can only afford him on a part-time basis. We need support staff and better training facilities for the international squad. There is not much between the teams from Division 2 to Division 5 and the small detail makes the difference." Singapore sauntered to the Division 5 title this year and are off to Malaysia, the old enemy in terms of cricket, in September for the Division 4 tournament.

The Singapore government is becoming more supportive of cricket, but Vijaykumar says the support will be greater should cricket become an Olympic sport. "It's the same for a lot of developing cricket nations. Governments want to see tangible returns and the chance to promote their country internationally through sport, and nothing is more tangible than Olympic medals and participation. T20 is a perfect format for the Games and the knock-on effect in cricket outside the Test-playing nations would be huge.

"The government is on our side though. Eighteen- to 20-year-old men have to do national service in Singapore and it's getting a lot easier for me to obtain leave for our players in the forces for national games. In the past, too many players we have invested in as teenagers have fallen away from the game after finishing their service."

Ministry of Education schools are now obliged by law to have one outdoor "striking" game as part of their curriculum, be it cricket, football, hockey or baseball. Cricket has predictably always been popular among Indian schools. Now, through a collection of competitions and programmes, Bala Narayanan, chairperson of the SCA youth development committee, is seeing positive results in schools throughout Singapore.

"It's up to the individual school principals to choose the sport. Through versions of Kwik cricket, softball sixes and eventually hardball T20, we are convincing them that cricket is not expensive, time-consuming or dangerous.

"We recently held an Under-16 tournament where, I would say, 20% of the kids were of Chinese descent. That's a real breakthrough. By 2020 I think we can realistically see a 50-50 Indian-Chinese split in the national team."

In the endless debate about the future of cricket, the role of T20 in developing nations can easily be overlooked. Only men's Division 1 play 50-over cricket. Vijaykumar, while accepting that longer forms of the game would benefit the techniques and mental toughness of his players, sees the shortest form as the launch pad for the development of the game in Singapore.

"There is no chance of the game going even semi-pro any time soon, so we are dealing with amateurs who have family and work commitments. Land is scarce and expensive in Singapore as well, so by playing 20- or 30-over cricket we can accommodate more players and matches.

"Cricket is evolving and we're trying to get the message across that Singapore can very much be a part of this. When Bala and I are talking to headmasters they always sit up and listen when we tell them that a game of Kwik cricket takes less time than a game of tennis."

Apart from Vijaykumar, the others in charge of running Singapore cricket are dedicated amateurs, bringing professional diligence to the game they love.

Singapore has hosted three triangular ODI series featuring Test-playing nations. In 1996, Sanath Jayasuriya scored the fastest ODI century at the time and the fastest half-century, against Pakistan at the Padang.

The 1999 visit by the Indians saw the national stadium packed to its 12,000-seat limit, and the trees around the ground were crammed with those unable to get a ticket. It seems a shame that Indian representative teams with a least one or two household names don't play more games in developing countries where there are large expat Indian populations.

The SCC is hosting its fourth T20 tournament this August, having seen the gap in the market for a pan-regional club tournament. The club already has rugby 7s and football 6s tournaments, and Ashish Raivadera, SCC's tournament director, is clear about where he wants the cricket to be. "It's going to be the best amateur club tournament in Asia. The cricket is always of the highest quality and the camaraderie amongst the players from all over the world is very special. We're very excited to be welcoming Darren Gough and Farokh Engineer to this year's tournament, and celebrating our 160th birthday with our many friends from our sister clubs."

Like all things in Singapore cricket, there is a heavy emphasis on youth. The head of youth cricket at the SCC, Pete Brooks, sees the tournament as another way of getting more kids involved in the game. "We're having Kwik cricket tournaments and the whole environment is perfect for the development of youth cricket in Singapore, which, at club level, is getting stronger by the year."