Build a wicket and they will come

by Richard Freeman

In 1996, a young bowler playing against the Bangladesh national cricket side dismissed two batsmen with consecutive balls — the first delivered with his right arm, the second with his left.

If that astonishing feat had been performed by a high-profile player such as Australia’s Shane Warne or Sir Richard Hadlee of New Zealand, it would instantly have become the stuff of legend. However, as the bowler was Tetsuo Fuji, a 20-year-old playing for Japan in its first-ever international tournament, it rated little more than a handful of small, wry headlines on a few of the sports pages in the world’s newspapers.

Although Japan was comprehensively mauled in that tournament in Kuala Lumpur — managing to concede 457 runs in a one-day match against Fiji, and being bowled out for just 17 runs by the United Arab Emirates — Fuji’s double-whammy gave a glimpse of what could happen if the country ever wholeheartedly embraced the game.

In fact, embers of cricketing passion have long glowed, albeit faintly, in these isles since the game was introduced by visiting foreign sailors in the 19th century. The country’s first club, the Yokohama Cricket Club, was founded in 1868 — the year of the Meiji Restoration.

By the 1880s, annual matches were being played between expatriates in Yokohama and Kobe — a fixture that, apart from the war years, continued until 1962, when it foundered for want of enough cricket-playing expats in the Kansai port city.

The first international game known to have been played on Japanese soil took place in May 1896, between the then Westerners-only Yokohama Cricket and Athletic Club (as the YCC had become) and First High School of Tokyo (now Hibiya High School). To the well-documented horror of the Yokohama contingent, First High School won both games easily.

Although it became a minor sport played at some elite private schools, cricket failed to take root in Japan, to the great disappointment of its enthusiastic followers. As a result, it remained the preserve of the expat community for 80 years until its re-emergence in the 1980s.

In 1982, the annual cricket fixture between Kobe and Yokohama was resumed. However, to the surprise of the Yokohama team (whose club had, in 1912, been re-named again as the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club), Kobe fielded five Japanese players in its team, attracting the attention of a number of television stations.

After that, the 1980s and ’90s saw the game take off at a number of universities under the enthusiastic leadership of professor Makoto Yamada from the Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, who had caught the cricket “bug” on a trip to Britain in 1975 while watching the game’s first World Cup.

The first homegrown Japanese cricket clubs were established at Keio University in 1987 and at Senshu and Chuo universities in 1989, followed by Waseda University (1990), Tokyo University of Technology (1992), and Aoyama Gakuin University and University of the Sacred Heart in 1994. Since then, with the foreign community spreading further afield, more and more clubs have been established nationwide.

The leisurely pace of the game and the chance to indulge in something far removed from the highly regimented way other sports are practiced and played in Japan is what makes the game so unique and attractive.

“In Japan everything moves fast, everything is so ‘quick, quick, quick.’ But cricket is a completely different world,” said national team member Naoaki Saida.

“I’m able to relax, lie on the ground watching players play, waiting for my turn. There is no other sport like that.”

In 2001, the nonprofit Japan Cricket Association was formed with the aim of promoting cricket nationwide, and after overcoming a few disagreements with the Kanto Cricket League, the weekend expatriate and Japanese leagues have been merged. There are also plans to introduce the game to primary schools through the Recreational Cricket Association, an offshoot of the JCA.

“We have no young cricketers in Japan. Most start in university,” said Fuji, now captain of the national team. “That’s a problem — to create a cricket culture in Japan.”

Fuji is typical of many Japanese who take up the game. A former baseball player, he first played at Chuo University and was soon enthralled by its tactics and the culturally diverse world it spanned.

“The wooden bat, the grass field, it was all so different from baseball. Plus it’s a great way to meet people from other countries.”

Fuji has also managed to do a fair bit of traveling himself with the national team. “I have played in Nepal and the United Arab Emirates and Perth in Western Australia, I also spent 10 months at the academy run by the Victorian Cricket Association,” he said.

Another cricketer to have traveled is 20-year-old Shizuka Kubota. In June, the Waseda University student, who took up the game less than two years ago, was a member of the Japan women’s team that played in the World Cup qualifying tournament in Amsterdam.

A basketball player in high school, Kubota was the top scorer for Japan in the tournament, and as a sign of her dedication to the sport, she turned up for her interview with bat in hand, having just practiced with her university team.

“I didn’t know anything about the game until a friend introduced it to me at university,” she said. (“And now she breathes and dreams the sport 24 hours a day,” quipped JCA director Kei Imamura.)

While the enthusiasm of Japan’s players is boundless, the financial backing is not — as exemplified by the women’s team, which had to pay its own way to the Netherlands.

“The West Indies women’s team wants to come here on tour, but we need help to finance the tour,” said Imamura, who added that his dream is for an all-purpose cricket stadium to be built in Tokyo.

A recent ruling allows a limited number of foreigners to play for the Japan national team, a view welcomed by Robb McKenna, an Australian who is one of the two coaches of the team.

“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,” he said.

At a recent East Asia Pacific Eights tournament in Perth, Australia, that involved South Korea, Indonesia and an Australian Indigenous Development Team, Japan finished second, registering its first-ever national side victory and winning four of its seven 8-a-side, 20-overs-per-team matches.

The Festival Award for the most influential player of the event — a signed print donated by legendary Australian bowler Dennis Lillee — was awarded to Japan’s vice captain and opening batsman Hirokazu Takahashi, who stayed on in Australia on a cricket development training placement (along with two other Japanese development officers). They were guests of the VCA as part of their International Cricket Council-established partnerships with the Japan Cricket Association and the Republic of Korea Cricket Association — a partnership that has also seen former players such as Jeff Thomson, Allan Border and Dean Jones visiting Japan to hold coaching clinics.

For Takahashi and Fuji, a once unheard of sport has given them the opportunity to travel and represent their country, and with more and more school children being introduced to the sport, what was once a dream — Japan playing competitive international cricket — may one day become reality.