||Devotees try to sell cricket to stumped Japanese
By Brent Kininmont (Integral copy of article at Rediff.com on 17/09/2002)
Japan's international cricket team have suffered some stunning defeats during their short time at the crease.
In their maiden international tournament seven years ago, the side were hit for a colossal 457 runs in a one-day match against fellow featherweights Fiji and were bowled out by the United Arab Emirates for a humiliating 17 runs.
"At the first tournament I think everyone cried because they didn't expect to be beaten like that," said Naoaki Saida, a swing bowler and middle-order batsman in the national team for the past four years.
To help both their dismal record and the development of cricket in a nation crazy about baseball -- not to mention soccer, since the World Cup they co-hosted in June -- the Japanese are turning for the first time to outside talent.
Foreign-born players have long formed the backbone of minor sides in Asia, such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Now six foreigners -- four Pakistanis, one Indian and one Zimbabwean -- have been selected for the Japan squad but their brief will be to groom future match-winners as much as to help win a few matches themselves.
"The Japanese players, particularly those who have played overseas and have benefited from those experiences, know that playing with foreign players who actually do try to help you is the best way to learn the game," said Robb McKenna, an Australian who is one of two coaches of the national team.
The best players in the Japanese team learned their cricket
during long stays in nations steeped in the game.
Cricket is a rare sight in baseball-mad Japan
Saida, 27, got his first taste when he was 11 during a year in England, winning a place in his primary school's first 11 on the strength of hitting and fielding skills he had honed playing baseball in Japan.
"In Japan everything moves fast, everything is so 'quick, quick, quick'. But cricket is in a completely different world," he said.
"I'm able to relax, lie on the ground watching players play, waiting for my turn. There is no other sport like that."
The inclusion of foreign-born players in the national team is part of a wider effort to promote cricket in Japan that includes merging weekend expatriate and Japanese leagues and introducing the game to primary schools.
"We have no young cricketers in Japan. Most start in university," said Tetsuo Fuji, the captain of the national team and another refugee from baseball.
"That's a problem -- to make a cricket culture in Japan."
The Japan Cricket Association faces an uphill task convincing others to lay down their aluminium baseball bats for the heavier, flat-faced slab of willow used in a sport whose merits are not immediately obvious in Japan.
Subscribers to the infamous Japanese work ethic may find it difficult to digest a game that eats up a whole day and requires an expanse of grass in a nation squeezed for space.
Tracking down a suitable ground around Tokyo, where most of the 60 or so teams in Japan are based, is tricky.
Groundkeepers, fearing the damage the alien activity might do to their baseball or soccer fields, are reluctant to let cricketers use their highly coveted patches of turf.
Matches are usually consigned to rolled-out artificial pitches on reclaimed riverside grounds that stay soaked for days during the midsummer rainy season and after typhoons.
A new satellite television channel specialising in programmes from the Indian subcontinent may help the cause, as it plans to broadcast international cricket -- including Test matches and next February's World Cup -- in Japan for the first time.
One goal of the channel is to boost the profile of the sport, said Yasufumi Ogawa, co-founder of Masala Entertainment, which has formed an alliance with the Japan Cricket Association and plans to begin broadcasts in December.
The Japanese national team, however, do not expect television to cover their games any time soon. Cricket in Japan is still in its infancy even though the first games were played more than 130 years ago by visiting foreign sailors.
But team members are proud of the strides made since the routs suffered during their first international matches.
"In each successive tournament we've managed to do something new," said Saida.
"In the third ACC (Asia Cricket Council) trophy we managed to get more than 100 runs in a game. Before that we couldn't get over 100 -- we were all out in the 70s or 80s."
In February, Japan beat South Korea and Indonesia -- hardly cricket heavyweights but the victories earned Japan the title of East Asian Champions.
Even the series of crushing defeats seven years ago had
their moment when two batsmen in the side from Bangladesh, now a Test-playing
nation, were dismissed by Tetsuo Fuji with consecutive balls -- the first
bowled with his right arm, the second with his left.