"Beijing is a lucky place for India, Yang Jiechi, the former foreign minister of China, said after India's successful showing at the 2008 Olympics in the Chinese capital. "Now you should teach us how to play good cricket."
Now a member of the State Council, Jiechi is one of China's most prominent politicians. There is some doubt that one of the leaders of China's foreign policy has had the time to learn much about the game, but with that tongue-in-cheek statement Jiechi somewhat unknowingly predicted an aspect of China's cricket development journey.
With the country's economic boom still on the up, the numbers of expatriates from the cricket-playing countries in the larger Chinese cities continues to increase. At present the Shanghai Cricket Club (SCC) boasts a 16-team league across three divisions. Beijing CC has ten teams playing in its weekend leagues, and Guangzhou has an eight-team T20 league. While these leagues are run by expatriates and are viewed as social, yet competitive, activities for foreigners to enjoy on weekends, they have also proven to be opportunities for the development of young Chinese cricketers.
These competitive platforms have seen the likes of national players Zhang Yufei, Li Jian and Zhao Gaosheng, who have all gone through the local school-development systems, play in the 2012 Shanghai Cricket Club (SCC) league season against expatriate players, many of whom have played at high levels of grade or club cricket back home.
The on-field performances of the three players have been impressive, and their club side, the Shanghai Daredevils, won the first division of the eight-month long league, an achievement all three are proud to have been part of.
Yufei, currently China's most successful allrounder, opened the batting and bowling for the club during the successful campaign. "Playing for the first time on a regular basis in such a well-organised league really gave me the opportunity to experience batting and bowling in many different circumstances," he said. "We had some very close games during last season and I have learned a lot from being exposed to these types of match situations."
All three have had short overseas stints in England or Australia recently and also participate in the newly established indoor cricket league in Shanghai. An Australian summer assignment is in the works for Yufei, who is excited about the prospect of being involved in a full season of grade club cricket as part of the nforce academy programme.
One of his national team-mates, Jiang Shuyao, created headlines in the Lincolnshire newspapers recently and is viewed by many in the UK as China's cricket pioneer. Currently a sports science masters student at Shenyang Sports University in north-east China, he is the first Chinese cricketer to have played a full season abroad.
"I certainly improved through coming up against a wide range of opponents, and playing alongside different characters. Domestically we just can't get this sort of experience. I think I'm a bit steadier now"Jian Shuyao
Representing the Cleethorpes 2nd XI in the 2012 Lincolnshire league, Shuyao batted with aplomb and consistency, scoring 776 runs in 28 innings at 31.04, finishing the season as the club's highest run scorer.
Shuyao feels the experience has changed him as a player. "I certainly improved through coming up against a wide range of opponents, and playing alongside different characters. Domestically we just can't get this sort of experience. I think I'm a bit steadier now. A batsman needs to patiently wait for the bad ball and make sure he grasps the scoring opportunities."
Matt Smith, a former Cleethorpes man himself, is now a lecturer and cricket coach at Shenyang's Aerospace University, and played an instrumental role in Shuyao's stint at the club. Smith also entered a Shenyang student team into the Beijing Sixes in July 2012. For the first all-Chinese team at the event, it was an invaluable experience. "Playing at the Beijing Sixes was a huge buzz, and a real eye-opener, for the Sunbirds," says Smith. "I think they learnt more about the game in three days than they do in a year of training and playing the usual domestic matches. However long they continue to play the game, they'll be cricket fans for the rest of their lives."
Sadly, while all these young talents are hungry for opportunities to keep learning, they do not get too many chances to play at a higher level. On the field the men's national side has had contrasting fortunes to their female counterparts. The national men's team has been a regular feature at Asian Cricket Council events across the continent and has gradually started improving on their earlier results, but they finished fifth out of seven teams at last year's 2012 ACC Challenge Trophy, which means that they do not qualify to participate in any tournaments in 2013. The inactivity and lack of interfacing between team members is bound to have a negative effect on the squad, particularly on players who desire to continue their personal development.
The Under-19 national team will be in action in the ACC U-19 Challenge in December this year in Thailand. Another step in the right direction is the inclusion of an invitational Shanghai Cricket Association (SCA nforcer) youth team in this year's SCC 30-over Division 2 league. This development initiative is strongly supported by Shanghai's expatriate community and the SCC has shouldered a large portion of the costs in support of the team's participation in the league.
The team will be made up of 15- to 18-year-olds from the Chong Ming Secondary School in Shanghai, who will get the opportunity to play regularly as a team against competitive expatriates in the six-team competition. A number of these players are likely to be included in the national U-19 team for the December ACC event and it is hoped that participation in this well-organised league will stand the U-19 national team in good stead.
Feng Jian is a sports science lecturer at Shanghai's Tong Ji University, a founding member of the SCA and currently heads all development initiatives in his role as events and coaching director at the association. He played a key role in bringing about this initiative and is optimistic about the experience the SCA youth team will gain playing in the expatriate league.
"This is the first time that the SCA and SCC are formally cooperating to creating a platform for our students to play in a regular competitive league. We are looking forward to working together to improve the playing skills of the youngsters in this new team as well as hopefully in the longer-term improving the quality of cricket across Shanghai, which will hopefully also benefit the national squads."
It appears that CCA and SCA are gradually working towards building a talent base of young players, which will hopefully progress into a squad strong enough to one day challenge higher-profile Associate nations.
In fact, China's view on development is quite the opposite of that of many of the other Associate and Affiliate nations. For instance, while the knowledge and opportunity that the foreign community presents is leveraged, foreign passport holders aren't allowed to play for the national teams. While there are a number of expatriates based in China, and overseas Chinese with strong cricketing backgrounds, the CCA feels that pulling these players into the system would actually slow down the process of development among indigenous players. It's essential that in order to make cricket appealing to youth in China they need to feel like they can achieve and progress to higher levels. China wants to build its own brand of cricket, one that the youth can embrace and aspire to be a part of.
Many other countries have teams filled with players from abroad, which leads to the perception of the sport as being an expatriate or foreign game. Another sleeping giant, the USA, seems to have gone this route and that country's cricket association's long-term progress in terms of making the game popular among Americans will be interesting to monitor in comparison to China's contrasting approach.
For now, the CCA will continue on its path to spread the game into the schooling system and endeavour to provide promising cricketers with other opportunities to develop. For a young organization, the progress is promising but the prospect of a China-versus-India Test match is still a very long way off.
Part one is here