Developing cricket in a country, which isn't very good at it, is a tremendous undertaking. There are innumerable problems and yet all of them are interconnected because one gives rise to another.
Take cricket in Malaysia for instance, the challenges form a vicious circle: the average Malay has almost no knowledge about the game and because the awareness levels are low, the player base is tiny. A small player pool has an adverse effect on the quality of the national team and the lack of positive results leads to poor media coverage and limited sponsorship. And because of cricket's inconspicuousness and low levels of funding, fewer people are inclined to take it up as a profession. And so we're back where we started: at a miniscule player base. To put it crisply, cricket in Malaysia suffers from everything a country like India doesn't.
To solve such a complex issue, you need to start somewhere and Malaysia has begun to introduce cricket widely at the school level. Suresh Navaratnam, who was the Malaysian captain between 1998 and 2006, recalled his school days, when it used to be a struggle to put a team together. "A lot of locals don't play. The majority of the people are Malays, Indians are a small percentage of the population and the Chinese don't play [either]. We used to pick our friends and sometimes we used to get hockey players to play cricket," Navaratnam told Cricinfo. "That was the only way because it was so difficult to get 16 guys for a team. It's better now because we get about 50-100 guys in a school playing cricket. The Malays are now starting to play."
A step in the right direction has been made with cricket being included in four sports schools around the country. These schools have facilities and were started to target students who were inclined towards sports. The infrastructure in these schools, which offer other sports as well, is funded by the government and most of Malaysia's young cricket talent emerges from these schools - 18 out of the initial 21-member pool for the Under-19 World Cup - according to coach Sahidul Alam. However, Alam, who is from Bangladesh, said there was still a lot of untapped talent.
"Some of the project schools are very good that look for only for very good students," Alam said. "So if there's a cricketer who is not good at studies it will be hard for him to get into the school though he has talent. Somewhere or the other the boys miss out and a lot of talent is lost. So in these schools they have about 25-30 players from different age groups U-13, U-15 and U-17.
The number of sports schools, although an effort is being made to increase them, is few and introducing cricket into other schools has several problems. It's an expensive game to play - one needs the equipment, turf pitches and in Malaysia, where it rains more often than not, indoor facilities become vital. And because of the lack of facilities, fewer children are inclined to play.
"Sometimes at the U-17 level, there are seven U-17 boys playing, few who are 15 and even some 13-year olds because they cannot fill a team with the same age group," Alam said. The deputy president of the Malaysian Cricket Association (MCA), P Krishnaswamy, who is also the chairman of the organising committee of the U-19 World Cup says that the MCA was tackling this issue by sponsoring the infrastructure.
"The MCA per se is helping with the equipment, turf wickets, artificial wickets and all the rest," Krishnaswamy said. "We're trying to have a coach at every level of our junior cricket competition. For the schools we have development managers going to all the schools, getting more schools to play the game."
Alam also feels that there is a need for a coach education program in Malaysia to train the gradually increasing player base at the school level. Such a program would also induce former cricketers to train as coaches and continue to build talent.
So has the player base increased in the last few years? "It'll take time but our base of cricketers has increased a lot in the last three years," says Krishnaswamy. "If we have 10000 now in five years we want to make it 30000 people involved with cricket. That's a big base for us.
"Our junior development program has been good now and we have developed in the last three or four years. We have a good U-19 side. They'll perform well. It's a very good fielding side, the batting is a bit weak but we don't have that kind of exposure. But our U-17 side is very good. In Asia we'll be in the top four in the U-13, U-15 and U-17s easily."
However, much of the development work at the school level in Malaysia is being undone after the kids leave school. A lot of the children, after their age-group days are over, branch off into higher studies and take up professions because there isn't much of a future as a cricketer because the domestic competition structure is poor and career opportunities are limited.
"We have to make people continue with cricket after the age of 18, when they go to university and start thinking of their career," Navaratnam says. "The government needs to support in terms of scholarships and job opportunities. More private sector companies need to play cricket so when players go to their company they continue to play. Our junior levels are good but when they grow older the number playing gets smaller. We need to start cricket in university and colleges very seriously. The age group of 18-23 is where we are losing people. Krishnaswamy says the MCA was trying to build a scholarship program which would allow the cricketers to stick to the sport after they passed the age of 19.
"When you don't play for the country at the age of 21-22 you get bored. You play at a club level and think you're wasting your time. Your commitment to cricket won't be full time because you play mainly on Sundays."
The quality of domestic and club cricket in Malaysia takes a huge hit because of the outflow of cricketers after they finish with school. As a result, Navaratnam said that the national team had only about 30 guys to choose from because the "difference between the national team and the next level is too much" to bridge. "If a national player doesn't perform you can't pick a replacement from the next level because it is too low. We have to close that gap by increasing the quality of domestic cricket."
So what are the positives for Malaysian cricket amid all this? One thing going for them is that Malaysia has excellent facilities that were built for the Commonwealth Games in 1998, of which cricket was a part. There are nine turf facilities in Kuala Lumpur which have been improved further and several other grounds in Johor and Penang have been refurbished for the U-19 World Cup.
The National Sports Council has also funded a large part of the development for the World Cup. "They have an elite athlete development program where they deal with only elite sports," Alam said. Cricket is not an elite sport in Malaysia but they have considered the World Cup as an elite sport. They are supporting in every possible way to prepare the team."
At the end of it all, there can be no substitute for good results to boost a sport in a particular country. That is why so much hinges on the performance of the Malaysia Under-19s in this World Cup. A qualification for the Super League may be asking too much but a few wins in the Plate Championship will help make headway in solving the problems of publicity, awareness and funding.