The game of cricket has historically been played in areas of the world that have been influenced by the British but the sport is now expanding in places that many would not have thought possible. Japan is one of these new cricket playing nations.
I recently spoke to Alan Curr, Cricket Project Manager for Cricket Blast with the Japan Cricket Association and Dhugal Bedingfield, National Coach and Pathways Manager for Japanese Cricket, to gain some insight into the game of cricket in the country.
Are these exciting times for the game of cricket in Japan?
Very much so. I know everyone says that about whatever project they’re working on,
but right now we have the backing of the ICC, some great support from Cricket
Australia (in particular Cricket Victoria) and a lot of individuals giving their support and, as much as anything, taking an interest.
Last month we moved from a tiny box of an office into a classic old building which is far more befitting an ambitious organisation like ours. Our team is made up of eight full time employees with another three working part time and a whole host of volunteers who give their time willingly.
There is a genuine belief from all sorts of people who have visited the country that the game can thrive here. It may be a minority sport right now, but all it takes is for us to get the structures and systems right and we could well see a significant growth in the next few years. The enthusiasm is real, and while we don’t expect success overnight, we do believe that as player numbers grow, so will interest in the game.
How is the game of cricket viewed in Japan by the Japanese themselves?
The general population of Japan has very little idea of what cricket actually is. "Is that the one with the horses?", I have been asked on more than one occasion. Although baseball and soccer are very much ingrained in Japanese sporting culture, a lot of people are very inquisitive when it comes to foreign sports. Cricket draws inevitable comparisons to baseball and during club cricket matches in Tokyo it is not uncommon for a curious elderly Japanese passer-by to take up a prime viewing position at first slip, blissfully unaware that they are standing in quite an important spot within the field of play.
Is there a genuine appetite and passion for the game in the country?
From those who have been exposed to it, absolutely. In the five months I have been here I have been amazed at just how passionate people are and that is the single biggest factor that makes me believe the game can thrive here. I have seen a lot of the junior kids at training and the women’s national team playing in the recent EAP tournament and the enthusiasm and work ethic are really shines through. It tells me in no uncertain terms that if some people can love the game so much, then there is no reason why Japanese people throughout the whole country can’t feel the same way.
What people love the most is how inclusive the game is at junior level. We try to keep people involved and active throughout the game time, which is not that common in Japan where often the best players often take over and so others quickly get marginalised and don’t get the chance to develop their skills. We are determined to make sure that does not happen with cricket.
How is the game structured in Japan at the moment?
The Japan Cricket League and Japan Cup T20 competitions are based around the Kanto
(Greater Tokyo) region. Most matches are played in Sano, the home of cricket in Japan, about an hour north of Tokyo. These domestic competitions provide a pathway for players to represent Japan at international level.
There is also a Women's League, which has produced some fine players. The Japan
women's team is now ranked 13th in the world, a commendable achievement, considering the limited resources and player pool.
The University Competition is now well-established. Many of the larger universities in Japan have had cricket clubs for some time and it is here that many players in Japan get there first real taste of cricket.
However, we recognise the importance of getting kids involved in cricket at an early age, which is why we a currently rolling out the "Cricket Blast" programme for 8-12 year-olds in two cities in Japan. We are also working on strengthening Junior Cricket pathways at under-15, under-17 and under-19 levels.
Outside of Tokyo we are developing regional associations to help develop cricket in other areas around Japan. The Japan Cup Finals in October will feature teams from all over Japan competing to be national champions.
Is there a possibility of Japan competing on the World stage at some point?
Japan has been competing at international level for some time. The Japan women recently hosted the East Asia Pacific Trophy in Sano. Japan narrowly lost the final to Papua New Guinea, who progress to the World Cup qualifiers. Japan women will also be competing in the Asian Games in September against the likes of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and where four years ago they won bronze.
The Japan men's team will be taking part in the East Asia Pacific Trophy in Australia in November with the aim of progressing to the World Cricket League. There is a lot of work to be done but we believe there is great potential for the growth of cricket in Japan and strong national teams are an essential tool for promoting the sport. I won't put a timeline on Japan achieving Test status but let's just say we're in it for the long haul!
Certainly from what I have heard Japanese Cricket is developing well with the efforts of people like Dhugal and Alan, along with their teams, and because of them the game's development will only continue in the right direction. It may be a long process for the sport to reach the whole of the Japanese population but it will not be reached through a lack of effort from all of those concerned.