By Mary-Anne Toy Herald Correspondent in Beijing
March 4, 2006
CRICKET is not a sport one normally associates with China, but the world's most populous nation has embarked on an ambitious plan to change that.
China's sporting mandarins have dubbed it "the noble game", and with communist single-mindedness have plotted a five-year plan to become a cricketing nation.
The Asian Cricket Council's media officer, Shahriar Khan, said China's interest in cricket was simple. It realised that the biggest game in Asia is cricket - a game that China's major rival in the region, India, happens to be rather good at. With China increasingly making its presence felt in the region, learning to play cricket makes good sense.
"China very much wants to engage with Asia via this game - they've seen Sri Lanka, a tiny country of 20 million winning a World Cup, and with 1.3 billion people are thinking: surely, surely we can win this as well," Mr Khan said.
This month, 30 of the country's leading physical education teachers and coaches from sports such as baseball, softball and table tennis were accredited as China's first cricket umpires and coaches. They have been instructed to go back to their schools and universities and start spreading the word.
By 2009, according to the five-year plan, there will be at least 720 teams across the country in a highly organised system designed to channel promising youngsters from primary schools into the top secondary schools and then China's elite universities.
The aim is to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, and to ultimately beat its rising economic rival India in a Test.
This might seem far-fetched for a country that does not have even one cricket pitch yet, where the game is not shown on TV and where cricket is the almost exclusive domain of expats in Beijing and Shanghai.
China's cricketing association admits there are probably only 100 cricketers in China - including foreigners. The game has been introduced to just eight schools. But never underestimate the Chinese, especially when national pride and politics is at stake.
China quietly began turning itself into a cricketing nation two years ago. It joined the International Cricket Council as an affiliate, engaged Cricket Australia as a consultant and hired the former Sri Lankan Test player Rumesh Ratnayake as head coach.
Last September Cricket Australia ran its first six-day training camp in Beijing. Led by the Asian project leader, Ross Turner, the Australians gave a crash course to sport coaches and 50 Beijing primary schoolchildren. A second camp was held this year.
For the ICC, the experiment is fascinating because, although a cricket game was recorded in 1858 in Shanghai, the Chinese have no colonial baggage or grudges. "To them it's just a bat and ball game, so it's a very pure experiment. It's not about social graces or elitism," Mr Khan said.