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A different kind of hardball

by David Hickey

It’s as English as dancing round a Maypole on the village green. But, wedged between a rugby pitch and fields full of practicing Little Leaguers, the University of Tokyo Cricket Club and their counterparts across town from Chuo are doing their best to put this most civilized of pastimes on Japan’s sporting map.

They’ve got an uphill task. Although it’s the second most popular sport on Earth by following, with a billion fans worldwide and hosts of teams throughout the British Commonwealth from Australia to Zimbabwe, the 500-year-old game of cricket barely registers in Japan.

Here, there are around 62 senior men’s teams and 12 women’s teams, amounting to only 1,200 senior amateur players in total — that’s one cricketer for every 100,000 citizens in Japan. Twenty-five of those men’s clubs, including about a dozen university teams, are made up of Japanese players; the rest are comprised predominately of foreigners — Indians, Pakistanis, Brits, Kiwis . . .

Another obstacle is the lack of cricket pitches. Games have taken place on softball grounds, inside baseball stadiums, and even on golf courses. There is only one cricket pitch for the whole of Tokyo — in Koiwa, Edogawa Ward — a dropped-in, well-worn patch of artificial grass with a concrete pathway and a steep slope perversely inside the pitch’s boundary.

It’s hardly Lord’s, the hallowed Home of Cricket in St. John’s Wood, London, where the second Ashes test between England and Australia is currently unfolding.

It’s at Koiwa where the University of Tokyo and Chuo are going at it in the Kanto University Cricket League in a game of Twenty20 — a version of cricket that lasts around three hours, compared to international Test Matches that can fill a full five days.

They’ve certainly got the vernacular down pat, even if some of the more formal aspects of the game have been left back in the makeshift pavilion — actually four wooden poles with a roof on top next to some public toilets that look like they last saw a lick of paint during the infamous “Bodyline” Ashes series of 1932.

“New bowler, Aida,” says one of the two umpires, dressed in shorts, shades and sandals, in impeccable Estuary English early on in the match.

Chuo’s compact medium-fast bowler Hiromasa Aida, 20, rolls his shoulders, arches his back and then bustles in, trying to hurry UTCC skipper Seiji Sugiura into a false shot with a short-pitched delivery. But 21-year-old Sugiura, who, when not practicing his forward defensive, studies law, is equal to the task. So, with an exquisitely timed pull shot, he eviscerates the short-pitched delivery to the banks of the Edogawa River for four runs.

Then there’s a pause in play as a jogger traverses the outfield. The Lyrca-clad interloper clearly unsettles Sugiura’s concentration — he’s soon bowled out, only stopping his long walk back to his teammates sat on the boundary to lend the incoming batsman his batting gloves.

UTCC’s batsmen quickly cave in, scoring a paltry 34 all out after 8.4 overs (of six balls each, from the same bowler). Their cause is not aided by the fact that three players haven’t bothered to show up, reducing the team to eight players.

After breaking to take lunch — not, alas, English-style cucumber sandwiches and tea, but a convenience-store boxed meal — Chuo’s experienced batsmen marmalize the Tokyo attack, chasing down their target to win the game by an emphatic six wickets (meaning they still had six more batsmen who hadn’t needed to take to the field).

“The first time I held a cricket bat in my hands, it just felt right,” said Sugiura after the game as he sported a Team England cricket cap. “(The Seattle Mariners’ baseball star) Ichiro (Suzuki) used to be a hero of mine. But when I first got to university, I wanted to try a new sport. An older student taught me how to play, and I also learned by watching DVDs and clips on YouTube. My favorite player is (Australia captain) Ricky Ponting.”

Helping the sport establish a foothold in this country’s already crowded sporting calendar is the Japan Cricket Association, an NPO based in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. Established in 2001, the JCA has a staff of two. That might not sound like too many, but it didn’t have any full-time staff until Naoki Alex Miyaji became its CEO 18 months ago — an appointment made possible by funding from the International Cricket Council.

“We’re trying to move cricket in Japan from being volunteer toward being a professional organization,” says Miyaji, 30, sat in the JCA’s pokey office brimming with bags of grass-stained cricket gear and awards for its services to the game.

“We’re concentrating on small areas, trying to get more people playing, trying to get coverage in the local media,” says Miyaji, who grew up in Tochigi Prefecture, the son of a Japanese doctor and Scottish housewife. “I want to see cricket being played in every prefecture.”

The JCA, which also has branches in Hokkaido and Shikoku, is not recognized by the Japan Sports Association, which requires members to have offices in 75 percent of prefectures. It is, however, a member of the Japan Recreation Association, which awards a small grant and allows its members use of certain facilities for half-price — when they can get access to them.

“Compared to other cricket-developing countries, there are so many established sports with professional leagues, corporate leagues (there are in the region of 30,000 baseball players plus myriad Little Leaguers) that it’s hard to get access to facilities,” Miyaji says, gently bemoaning Japan’s lottery allocation system.

Beyond such practical barriers, the bilingual, bicultural Miyaji thinks that some aspects of cricket are well suited to the Japanese temperament.

“Generally, Japanese are patient and work well in a team environment.

“In cricket, you need to build your innings, run sensibly, be disciplined and work toward a target.”

But with many reared on baseball, he adds that “it’s hard for players to get that balance between slog and defense, which is something you learn when you’re young. There aren’t many Japanese batsmen.”

Unlike baseball, cricket is played on a round field; the action unfolds in the center. Fielders (wicketkeeper apart) don’t wear gloves and the bowler runs in to deliver the ball. Indeed, Shoaib Akhtar’s king-size runup helped “the Rawalpindi Express” clock cricket’s fastest-ever delivery, at 161.3 kph, in 2003. Like baseball, cricket fans pore over statistics. And like baseball, cricket is a mental and physical duel between batter and bowler.

One of Japan’s brightest cricketing prospects is Kenji Murata, a slow bowler and Chuo University Cricket Club alumni who these days turns his arm over for the British Embassy Cricket Club. Murata, 27, is the only Japanese leg spinner in the Japan Cricket League.

“I used to be a pace bowler,” Murata says at Chuo’s Ochanomizu campus, where he and the university’s own 200-strong Barmy Army are celebrating the cricket club’s 20th anniversary. “Then a Pakistani auto-parts worker based here who I’d met taught me how to bowl leg spin. He showed me how to give the ball a bigger tweak, about setting the right field and how to try and get the batsman out,” he says, adding that he also bowls a top spinner and a googly, the cricketing equivalent of baseball’s screwball.

“Accuracy and speed are the most difficult things to get right. Bowl it too slow and the batsman will be able to read the delivery.” Murata’s club form meant that in May he packed his white flannels and flew the 9,500 km to represent Japan at the World Cricket League Division 7 in Guernsey, a British island between England and France. There, he pitted his wits against cricketing giants Nigeria, Gibraltar and Suriname, taking six wickets in the tournament and averaging a highly creditable 22.67.

Murata’s rapid rise lends support to the credo of the JCA’s Miyaji that there are more opportunities for Japan’s juniors in cricket — there are currently around 700, he estimates — compared to baseball.

“It takes a lot to get to the top in baseball,” he says.

“But with the small number of players in cricket, if you keep playing, you’ve got a good chance of making the national team.”