Cricket's elusive Shangri-La

Zhang Mei was China's top scorer in the women's Asia Cup T20 UTPMedia/nforce sports

"My dream is that before my lifetime I will be able to see India and China playing against each other in Test cricket," said Malcolm Speed, former ICC chief executive, after his first visit to China in 2006. In ancient Chinese mythology that dream would be Shangri-La - utopia.

The prospect of the world's most populous country taking to the game has captured the imagination of cricket followers around the globe and has been a cause for much debate ever since. On that visit Speed met with members of the then newly established Chinese Cricket Association (CCA), which gained membership as an Affiliate of the ICC in 2005.

With its vast population, the natural assumption has always been that China is potentially a sleeping giant of international cricket, and many have seen it as merely a matter of time before it awakens. Articles have been written about how people envision this first Test match between China and India playing out. These imaginings do make for entertaining reading, especially as they involve half the world's population cheering on two national teams.

However, it would be naïve to think that cricket is the only sport with the foresight to have identified China and its massive growth potential. Football has always been China's most popular spectator sport. Yao Ming's rise in the NBA has entrenched basketball even deeper into Chinese youth culture. Almost every school, whether rural or urban, has basketball and football facilities, and public spaces in the cities are host to thousands of youth playing in evening competitions. Even the NFL has generated interest across major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou with city-based flag football leagues.

Meanwhile, lack of quality facilities has been a challenge for cricket development in China. With only one turf wicket at the international stadium in Guangzhou, three synthetic pitches in Shanghai and one in Beijing, securing playing grounds can be an expensive proposition. International cricket gets very little, if any, media coverage here and when you explain to people the beauty of the game, in these parts called banqiu, it is immediately confused with the similarly pronounced bangqiu (baseball).

Familiarity and media exposure aside, the cultural challenges are more far-reaching than simply broadcasting World Cups to the masses in the hope that it will make youngsters want to start bowling to each other in the streets. China's industrial growth has created opportunities for this generation that its predecessors never had. With family values and filial piety still the foundation of the nation's culture, young people are encouraged to excel academically in the hope that prosperous careers and futures will follow, not only for the individual but for the family as a whole. At present, all Chinese cricketers are school or university students and are amateurs in the purest sense. While they may get access to coaching and opportunities to play over these formative years, upon graduating from tertiary education, the pressures and desire to pursue career goals takes precedence. Without any stable income from the sport on offer, no one can blame them. The tragedy is that there are very few avenues for youngsters to continue playing, as the local playing platforms are only available within the schooling system.

"The ambitious goals of a 150,000-strong player base by 2011, qualifying for the 2019 World Cup, and obtaining Test status by 2020, claims that originally created so much media hype and excitement, can now be shelved as romantic ideals"

This social dynamic has meant that a number of talented cricketers have fallen out of the system. Mei Chunhua is one of China's most capped cricketers and a former captain of the women's team. As a young graduate, she is now based in Shanghai and works in marketing for a foreign medical supplies company. She spends some of her evenings working part-time as an umpire at Shanghai's newly built indoor cricket arena and plays in the social third division on Sundays at the Shanghai Cricket Club (SCC). "I've spent almost six years playing cricket full time. It's disappointing that I couldn't continue to play at that level, but I'll never regret playing and even quitting my first job to make myself available again. I have to choose to work now, though I'd definitely prefer to be a full-time cricketer. But I can't see that happening soon."

Olympic status would no doubt help. China's results at the games are a testament to how important Olympic pride and performance are from a nationalistic perspective, and Olympic sports programmes receive handsome government funding. With the ICC still undecided about its future as an Olympic member, that lifeline unfortunately isn't anywhere on the horizon. These obstacles have meant that the ambitious goals of a 150,000-strong player base by 2011, qualifying for the 2019 World Cup, and obtaining Test status by 2020, claims that originally created so much media hype and excitement, can now be shelved as romantic ideals.

That said, however, over the last few years, the CCA, with support from the Asian Cricket Council (ACC), has been making quiet inroads. Cricket development here has taken a two-pronged approach. The first and most crucial one is the natural focus at grassroots level by training up coaches and umpires with the intention of nurturing an interest for the game, and hopefully some basic skills, in the schooling system.

The Shanghai Cricket Association (SCA) is currently China's only regional cricket association recognised to have provincial governing mandate by the CCA, and it has been very active in implementing development objectives. Since its founding in 2008, the SCA has trained over 40 schoolteachers as certified coach-umpires running cricket programmes as part of their physical education curriculums. With more than 50 academic institutions registered under SCA membership, to date over 5000 Chinese students in Shanghai alone have attended SCA-managed cricket classes or programmes.

Terry Zhang, the deputy secretary general and external affairs director of the CCA, has been involved with cricket development since the organisation's earliest days and takes a realistic view of growth over the long-term across the country. "Cricket has been introduced in more than 100 schools and to 30,000 students in China over the past eight years. However, considering the large population of China, cricket is still an unknown sport to most Chinese people. There is a long way for CCA to go to make cricket a well-known sport in China."

An encouraging sign, however, is the progress that the women's team has made on the Asian circuit. Hosting the 2012 Women's T20 Asia Cup in late November in Guangzhou, China finished a respectable fifth out of Asia's top eight teams including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They also came painstakingly close to beating a Full Member nation, pushing Bangladesh to the wire in the opening day's encounter, which went to the last over. While it was disappointing not to have enjoyed such a high-profile victory, China were buoyed by the fact that they finished above all other Associate members.

With the Women's World Twenty20 final qualifiers in their sights, the ACC Women's Championship in Thailand this January was a must-win event - only one qualification spot was available in Ireland later this year. China went through the round-robin stages unbeaten and even broke an Asia women's cricket record by posting 272 for 3 in 25 overs against Kuwait. Zhang Mei was the batsman of the tournament, with 269 runs at 67.25 over the seven games. Another outstanding on-field contribution was the legspin of Han Lili, who racked up 14 wickets. However, Thailand's strong bowling attack, and possibly a change in China's strategy, due to which they bowled first after winning the toss, meant that the team that appeared to be strong favourites to win the tournament stumbled at the finish line. China's solitary loss came in the crucial final and enabled Thailand to qualify as the fifth Asian nation for the qualifiers in Ireland.

There is no doubt that victory in this event, and thus progress to World Twenty20 final qualifiers, would have been the country's highest cricketing achievement to date, and the disappointment within the cricket fraternity here that it did not come to pass cannot be overstated. That said, the rapid climb up the Asian rankings made by the women's team and the ability to compete at such a high standard is indicative of how the grassroots school approach is succeeding in developing promising cricketers.

Hopefully in years to come, some sort of platform for sustainability and consolidation of this talent pool will present itself so that after graduating from university, players like these can build on the progress already made.

In part two: the second development strategy, which is the engagement of the foreign cricketing community in China and abroad, and the opportunities it has presented young Chinese players to develop as cricketers