It is often said that the future of a nation lies with its youth. If that is also true of sport, then Gunma could soon end up being the Barbados of Asia, producing cricketers on a par with the great Caribbean production line.
The Gunma International SportSpeaks Club has been instrumental in introducing the sport to the kids of Gunma, and with Richard Laidler — a former professional cricketer from Melbourne, Australia — at the helm, there are hopes Japan will be able to send a team to the Under-15 World Cup in Melbourne in 2004.
“Our main aim is to get junior cricket going,” said Laidler, who grew up playing alongside the likes of Merv Hughes and Dean Jones and spent time touring Australia coaching fast bowlers alongside Aussie legend Dennis Lillee.
“We’ve got about 50 kids in Gunma from the ages of 9 to 15, and with the International Cricket Council allowing 16-year-old girls to play in the tournament, we may even take one girl to Australia with us. Hopefully we will hold a trial with the players being coached by the Japan Cricket Association so we can have a truly representative Japanese team.”
The club, which has the backing of Gunma University, is a nonprofit organization that aims to advance the awareness and knowledge of new sports in Japan.
“One thing we tell them is that they can learn a lot about the cultures of other countries through sport, and of course they need to speak English if they want to get the most from their sport, as that is the language of international sport,” said Laidler.
Besides cricket, Laidler has also taken netball and Aussie Rules football teams from Japan down to Australia, but cricket is his first love.
“The sport has really taken off,” he said. “The kids are buying their own equipment and we have three boys who are as good as kids of their age group in Australia.
“One criteria for us playing in the World Cup is that we have a competition in place by the end of 2003 and there are now five teams preparing for that. I think they can be competitive in Melbourne. They hit the ball well, they are great fielders — the only thing they need to work on is their bowling.”
However, Laidler is well aware that the complex nature of the sport makes it harder than most to teach to the Japanese.
“Obviously, as we get more Japanese coaches it becomes easier to get the message across to the kids,” he said. “The game is a difficult one to learn so it needs to introduced step by step.”
One problem that Laidler faces is that a number of potentially good players are “lost when they get to junior high school and their club activities take up all their time.”
However, the Victorian is adamant that the game can take off.
“Once we get one area up and running, then we can move on and start on another area, though, of course, we need to follow up on the areas that have established youth cricket, and it would be good if we could get a financial backer to help us in our endeavors.”
With Gunma hoping to host a pre-World Cup qualifying tournament in 2004, and Laidler continuing his crusade, there’s a good chance that even more kids in Gunma will be exchanging their aluminum baseball bats for willow cricket bats.