China catches cricket bug ahead of Asian Games debut

Wang Lei of China watches the ball during a cricket match against the Hong Kong development squad Wang Lei is captain of the China national team

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When China hosted the Beijing Olympics two years ago, its efforts to master sports not traditionally played by Chinese athletes paid off with a haul of medals for the host nation.

On Friday in the city of Guangzhou in southern China, another major sporting event kicked off - the 16th annual Asian Games.

Making its debut at the games is cricket - a sport that used to be played in China many years ago only by foreigners, but which is now enjoying a revival.

At Shanghai's Tongji university some of the country's first generation of cricketers meet to practice every week after class.

In the middle of a football pitch a coach armed with a cricket bat is testing the mettle of his budding fielders, belting balls towards them to see if they can catch.

It is a scene you would see at cricket clubs and universities in countries across the world - but not until recently in China. The game was revived here only about five years ago.

Dedication

Start Quote

Bill He

I'm just a student but I think in about 10 years we will beat other Asian countries”

End Quote Bill He

There is a cheer from his team mates for one of the players, Bill He, as he makes a difficult catch.

The marketing student - tall with broad shoulders - says he likes cricket because of the teamwork involved.

"It's a gentle game," he says. "It's very interesting and challenging, we enjoy it."

But did he not find it difficult to pick up the rules, and master the technique needed to play cricket well?

"I think the important factor is whether you like this game or not. If you like this game you will play well," he says with a grin.

You have to be pretty dedicated to take up cricket here.

The athletes running on the track next to the pitch know that if they show promise China already has a well established system in place to help them achieve excellence.

But for would-be cricketers it is different. They do not have a proper cricket field but have to use the football pitch instead.

There are no nets for batting practice - for that they have to use a volleyball court.

Producing results

Wang Yuan is a young woman facing off against a line of male bowlers at one end of the court.

A girl jumps to catch a cricket ball Young men and women in the university squad train together

She has been playing for two years. They do not seem much of a match for her.

She insists the basic facilities are not that much of a problem.

"Although the training environment's hard, if we train well here and achieve a good result in competition this makes us very happy."

The young men and women in the university squad train together. Zhang Hong Chang is one of the younger players.

"Cricket at the moment is not that popular," he says, as he watches match practice get under way.

"In the beginning, I was just curious about it, but after I joined the club I made the school team. Now I really enjoy the competitiveness and the rules. The more I train the more I like it," he says.

Soon it is time for him to put on the protective pads, and stride out into the middle of the pitch.

There is a lot of enthusiasm on display around the field, but less technique.

Most of the players of course did not pick up a bat until they came to university. They did not grow up watching the sport or playing it.

A girl throws a cricket ball Most of the university players did not grow up watching or playing the sport

Chinese officials responsible for promoting cricket, like Li Xin, a professor at the university, are optimistic it will take hold here and that in time, it will produce results.

"Although cricket started in China really late, the momentum is building," he says.

"Judging by our players' enthusiasm for the game, we think one day we will be able to play the major cricketing nations as equals."

China's Cricket Association has set itself an ambitious set of targets, including achieving test status - playing test matches against countries like the UK or Australia - by 2020.

Bill He thinks they will not only be playing but winning by then.

"I'm just a student but I think in about 10 years we will beat other Asian countries," he says confidently.

Some observers here say if China chooses to develop a sport, it always gets results.

On the other hand, a team game like cricket needs many years to bed in, attract enough talent among players and coaches, and develop a following.

The enthusiasm here is impressive, but taking it to the next level will not be easy.

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