China's struggles to develop cricket with ICC reluctant to join Olympics

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The ICC hoped China would be a cricketing force.

When there is talk of cricket’s furthest flung outposts, China is the country that raises the most surprised eyebrows. It seems odd that a country that has no real history as a cricket playing nation is even a possibility of creating an opportunity for the sport to further develop. If the truth be told, cricket doesn’t really have a foothold in this vast and populous nation. Still, the idea of cricket taking off in China was enough of a draw for Malcolm Speed to lead a delegation to the country while he was ICC Chairman in 2006.

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Speed liked what he saw and said we would see “China playing India in my lifetime”. He arranged for an ICC investment of $5million to aid the preparations of the Asia Games cricket tournament. Those that were involved in cricket development at the time genuinely believed that China was a real frontier for the sport to expand. In the decade since, prospects of a significant amount of cricket in the country have not moved forward at all. The reason for this is ultimately resources, both financial and human.

The China Cricket Association is a two man organisation headed by General Secretary, Song Ying Chang. He and his assistant Zhang Tian are responsible for running sport in a country of 1.4 billion people. From a development prospective the vast majority of the work is done by former Bangladesh international, Aminul Islam. Aminul wanders the country – a cricket loving nomad with a bag full of cricket kit spreading the gospel of the game like a Victorian missionary hoping to convert the natives. He is funded by the Asia Cricket Council (ACC), but that organisation is being swept up by the ICC so it remains to be seen if he will continue to have the same support in terms of salary and equipment.

While Aminul has done sterling work, he is just one man. There are other pockets of cricket development, mostly because of ex-pats who have brought their love of the game with them. Jon Newton, a South African who is president of the Shanghai Cricket League, has made some headway with the sport. His events company, NForce, and his Shanghai Dragons team have been working at getting local and ex-pat players pulling in the same direction with some success. He has arranged for a team of high school students to play in the second division of his league and has sponsored promising local players to join existing sides.

Newton also offered free use of his company’s indoor cricket facilities to China’s national sides, only for them to decline.

“There are no other indoor nets in China,” said Newton. “It was an opportunity lost.”

Another foreigner doing his best to push cricket in China is Matt Smith, a Brit who works at Shenyang University as an English teacher. He has got a large number of locals interested in the game and they are improving all the time. Through his passion and commitment he has developed a culture of cricket playing amongst his students. The problem is once again one of resources.

“There is only me,” Smith told Sport360. “There needs to be 30 more, at least.”

Smith suggested that the way forward was to work with the universities and get cricket coaches from other countries jobs teaching English as a second language. They would have work and could spend time replicating the success that Smith has had introducing the sport to the locals. It could work, but it would take time, money and commitment. In a world where the international cricketing authorities are neglecting associate and affiliate cricket nations that have an existing infrastructure it is perhaps a forlorn hope to think they would devote the time needed to make such a plan work.

The real problem with the development of the sport in China, and in other burgeoning countries for that matter, is the resistance of the ICC, and more specifically the England and Wales Cricket Board, to countenance cricket’s involvement in the Olympics. The real sporting currency for China and its government is medals. Without that cricket is a side show.

Newton is unequivocal on the subject of what the Olympics does for China.

“The moment you flick that switch and grant cricket Olympic status, it’s on,” said Newton. “If it doesn’t happen, cricket will never develop in China. If it does, cricket will definitely take off. It’s as straightforward as that.”

ECB President Giles Clarke does not see it that way. He is quoted as saying that cricket getting Olympic status “makes no financial sense.” He goes on to say that having a period every four years where T20 cricket is in the Olympics would cost his board tens of millions of pounds. There is little evidence that it would.

A glimpse towards the strides that rugby has made in China since it was announced that a Sevens tournament would take place at the Rio 2016 games shows what Olympic status means for the sport in the country. Zhang has said in the past that cricket needs to look at the parallels.

“There are so many similarities between rugby and cricket in China. The same could happen for cricket,” said Zhang.

While cricket in the UK does not need the Olympics, that is not the case elsewhere. It makes perfect financial sense for China and a number of other countries. Not because the competition will be the pinnacle of the sport, but because it opens up financial support from governments and sporting bodies. So many funding streams are only available to sports that have those five coloured rings attached. Cricket closing itself off to those because it doesn’t suit the privileged elite that are already financially secure is yet another example of the short sighted nature of its administration.

Cricket in China sounds romantic, and the growing financial clout that its booming economy could mean to the money that comes into the sport does represent a glittering prize. You just have to look at the impact the growing middle class in India has had on the sport to see what a massive country with a love of the game can mean to players and fans. As ever, when expansion of cricket beyond its current borders is discussed, for it to happen those that hold the reins of power will have to make some sacrifices. As it stands, there is little evidence they would be willing to do so. 

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