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Growing up a lonely cricket fan in Japan

It was not always easy, but a worthy role model and the belated discovery of a cricket club helped keep a childhood passion alive and kicking

Amod Sugiyama
Members of the Shiga Kyoto Cricket Club (author: front row, second from right)  •  Ashley Canning

Members of the Shiga Kyoto Cricket Club (author: front row, second from right)  •  Ashley Canning

I never thought a day would come when I would shed a tear while reading a cricket book. Especially when the book was a gloriously funny memoir, Emma John's Following On.
Was it because the protagonist of the memoir was Mike Atherton, her idol growing up, and my favourite person in the cricket world? But while I admire Atherton and eagerly wait for his Times column every Thursday, I don't love him the way many Indian fans love Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli.
I cried because the book reminded me of my childhood.
I was ten years old in August 2005, visiting my relatives in India, when I caught a glimpse of the most memorable Test series ever played. I don't know if it was Andrew Flintoff's heroic performances or Kevin Pietersen's ridiculous hairstyle that made me fall in love with the game, but I became interested right away. Disney villains like Jafar and Maleficent were quickly replaced by Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden in my head. It took almost ten more years for me to learn to respect these two modern cricketing greats.
I do not remember much about my previous visits to India before 2005 but my dad tells me now that during a train journey, I was struck by the sight of kids playing cricket everywhere - even on the railway tracks. All I remember from that journey is seeing people throw used paper cups from the train windows. Had I joined them, I might have been a better ball thrower now.
My friends say cricket is in my blood. Sure, having an Indian father made it easier to get into the game, but the same didn't happen to my younger brother. I wanted to know why a blond, slightly overweight Australian man who was apparently bowling much slower than his team-mates was troubling the English batsmen. My brother did not. No, cricket didn't choose me, I chose cricket.
My dad bought me a DVD boxset of the 2005 Ashes for my birthday that year and I watched it again and again. Browsing through old cricket scorecards on Cricinfo became a daily activity. I learnt that Test cricket could be both wonderfully exciting (Edgbaston 2005) and incredibly boring (Colombo 1997). I loved listening to my dad's old cricket anecdotes too, stories of the West Indian greats and Sunil Gavaskar, who was his idol.
The epic series of 2005 had made me an England fan and I spent many Saturday afternoons revisiting their previous tours in the last two decades on Cricinfo. It turned out they were not exactly world-beaters in the '90s. Going through all the scorecards, one man caught my attention. He was the captain of the team for five years in that period and it seemed like he was anchoring many innings, only to find out he lacked partners who could stick it out with him. "Dad, why did Atherton only average 38? Tendulkar averages 57, right?" I asked him one day. "Well, he was an opener. And it was a bloody tough job in the '90s," was his answer.
I came across the scorecard of the 1995 Johannesburg Test, which Atherton saved by batting for more than ten hours. "How can a man bat for that long knowing his team cannot win," I wondered. Atherton had been part of the commentary team for the Ashes that year. I could not believe the man with a kind, gentle voice was capable of such a heroic performance. I was also obsessed with Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings at that time and my favourite character was Faramir. Thinking back now, maybe I found some similarities between the young captain of Gondor and Atherton: both were students of history and loved literature. And both could be incredibly brave when they needed to be.
But even though I was growing up a cricket fan, my engagement with the game was limited to following professional games on the internet and playing the occasional game in the park while visiting relatives in India until I turned 18. Born and raised in the small town of Takamatsu in Kagawa, Japan, I had no access to playing the game. (This is the excuse I use when I have to explain why I am such a bad cricketer!)
Luckily my college prefecture had a club, so I was finally able to play the sport. Shiga Cricket Club (we rebranded the club as Shiga Kyoto Cricket Club this year) was a beacon for cricket-loving expats living in Japan for work or education. When I joined the club five years ago, I was the only Japanese in the team, and all we did was get together on Sundays and have a hit among ourselves in various parks in the area.
Now we are playing matches regularly with other teams in this area. There are four university cricket teams and one high school team in our area, though we are still the only adult team around here. Despite all the difficulties - there is no cricket ground in Kyoto, so we play most of the games on a rock-hard baseball ground with matting wicket - cricket is growing here.
Our club boasts the best wicketkeeper in the region in Ashley Canning. I owe him for all the stumpings he has got me with my rubbish left-arm spin. But it's best to leave him alone when he gets out since he will be looking for ways to smash his bat or gloves on something. He'll be okay five minutes later.
Alan Margerison, a Yorkshireman who pretends to be an Aussie, has a good defensive technique, so it's a shame that we only play 20-over games. He bowls handy offspin too.
Indranil Mukherjee (Indi) is not only a good batsman and a true team player but also our team's fashion guru. Unfortunately, he is pretty busy with his postdoc these days and cannot join us every time. We need you more, Indi!
Remesh Palakkad joined us at the end of the last season and is quickly becoming a central figure in the team. He is a genuine allrounder and our quickest bowler at the moment. I ask him every time whether he wants to take the new ball and he always says no and bowls the second over. We cricketers are superstitious people, aren't we?
Our newest Japanese player, Ikuo Ogita, watched a little cricket footage on CNN years ago and that was how he got interested in the game. He finally started playing this year after finding us on Facebook.
However, the two biggest shining lights of our club are a pair of Japanese brothers, Naoki (11) and Kosuke (14) Okamoto, Alan's family friends. The first time they watched cricket was a Big Bash game on TV during a holiday in Australia. The game looked familiar to them. What form of baseball was this? After a few games in the park while on holiday, they started to practise with a rubber ball. Soon, the temptation of hitting the hard ball became too strong for them and they started to come with Alan to our games. A Japanese version of the Chappell brothers in the making!
Emma's book is a coming-of-age story of a slightly awkward teenager. In chapters three and four, she writes how she tried to be an "evangelist" and introduce cricket to her friends only to find out they "tolerated [her love for cricket] and gently ignored" it. I know how you felt, Emma! I tried too, here in the land ruled by baseball. Some friends and teachers were nice enough to ask me the latest India scores. "How did India go last night, Amod?" "Not good. Lost to Australia again," was my usual reply while I thought, "Bloody hell, I don't even support India."
It was tough being the only cricket fan in school. I tried to explain cricket to my school friends many times but to no avail. I now think that the only similarity between cricket and baseball is that you use a bat to hit the ball. They are completely different sports. My friends all thought cricket is a much easier sport to play because there is no foul ball and you can hit the ball to 360 degrees. That is probably true but in cricket, you are judged by your whole innings rather than "one hit".
I sometimes wonder if I'll get the chance to meet Atherton. "Hi, Athers! Pleasure meeting you. I know you have no idea but you had a big influence on one Japanese teenager growing up. By the way, why on earth did you declare when Graeme Hick was 98 not out in Sydney?"
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Amod Sugiyama is a part-time teacher who plays club cricket in Kyoto