CRICKET IN CHINA, NO KIDDING

The Chinese have in the past become world champions in sports they have had little history of, from chess to swimming. Cricket will certainly pose a challenge to the novices but if hard work is what it takes there may well come a day when the term Chinaman will mean a player from China rather than a deceptive delivery by a left-arm spinner, writes PALLAVI AIYAR.

The term "cricket" in China usually conjures up images of small, green, singing insects since keeping crickets as pets has a long tradition in the mainland. But the term is set to take on a new resonance: to do with bats and balls.

Just nine months after the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) conducted a training camp for sports coaches from select Chinese schools and universities, China's first inter-school tournament concluded in Beijing.

A total of 12 primary and secondary schools from Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen battled it out in the six-day long competition, making cricketing history in what was till now virgin territory. The best players from the tournament will now form a national under-15 team that will participate in the Asian Cricket Cup competition in Thailand, in December.

China became an affiliate of the International Cricket Council in the summer of 2004. In September last year, the ACC, with the help of a team from Cricket Australia, began to train umpires and sports coaches from 30 different universities and schools from China's major cities. These coaches then returned to their institutions to establish the first cricket teams ever in Mainland China.

China's sports ministry has serious plans for the game. It aims to have 20,000 trained players, 300 umpires and 3000 coaches in the country by 2015. According to Jiang Zhenyuan, Director of the Cricket Development Committee of the Chinese Cricket Association, the mainland hopes to acquire one-day international status within a decade and participate in a World Cup shortly after.

But given that the words, "ban qiu," as cricket is called in Chinese, usually only elicit some mystified head scratching from the average Zhou, China certainly has its work cut out. Cricket has never really taken off in a country with no colonial link to Britain and given that it is not an Olympic sport little funding is forthcoming to develop the game in the mainland.

For now it is the ACC, lured by the commercial potential of sponsorship deals given the massive size of the Chinese market, that is footing all the bills, providing training and equipment to schools.

But the enthusiasm shown by the new young cricketers during the recent tournament gives some hope for the future of the game in the mainland. During one classic Beijing vs. Shanghai tussle, the home team trounced the out-of-towners by more than 30 runs. But the Shanghai team was quick to point out that it had only been in existence for two months as opposed to the Beijing school's six-month long history.

"I used to only have time for football but now I think cricket is pretty cool and I hope to get better at it, maybe even take part in an international competition one day," said 15-year-old Fei Zhi from the Shanghai Hengfeng Middle School. He prefers batting to bowling because "it feels so cool when you hit the ball hard."

Like the Shanghai Hengfeng School, many of the teams have only been playing the sport for a couple of months. Consequently there were predictable moments of comedy out on the field. Batsmen knocked out their own stumps; both batsmen ended up at the same end of the wicket and plenty of catches were dropped. But every time willow made contact with leather there were squeals of excitement from team members.

Coaches were tense, many, somewhat strangely for athletes, chain smoking while shouting curt instructions to "move your feet" and "look sharp." A few bewildered onlookers happened past and stopped to watch the goings-on. "The speed of this game is very slow. Nothing much seems to be going on," complained one of them.

The Chinese have in the past become world champions in sports they have had little history of, from chess to swimming. Cricket will certainly pose a challenge to the novices but if hard work is what it takes there may well come a day when the term Chinaman will mean a player from China rather than a deceptive delivery by a left-arm spinner.