Three years ago, Japan didn’t have an active Under-19 cricket team. Today, however, Japan is one of 16 teams taking part in the ongoing Under-19 Cricket World Cup in South Africa.
It was poised to be a de facto final at the East Asia Pacific Under-19 qualifiers. The winner would go through to the World Cup, while the loser would be confined to heartbreak and regrets.
On the morning of June 8, 2019, however, Japan woke up to the news that Papua New Guinea had suspended 11 members of its squad for shoplifting. Unable to field a team, Papua New Guinea was forced to forfeit the game, sending Japan through to its first-ever global cricket tournament.
During the first week of the World Cup, Japan suffered a 10-wicket defeat to cricketing heavyweight India and a pair of nine-wicket losses to Sri Lanka and England.
Despite these results, Japan’s mere presence in South Africa is a testament to the efforts of the Japan Cricket Association to grow the game at the grass roots and school level.
Japan’s cricketing origins actually stretch back to 1863, when the Royal Navy had been sent to Yokohama to protect British traders from hostile Japanese samurai. Despite fearing for their safety, the merchants sensed this was an ideal time to get together and play the Navy in a friendly game of cricket.
It took until the 1980s, however, before Japan’s first amateur league was formed by a group of foreign and Japanese students, who were captivated by the sport on their visits to the U.K.
In 1984, Kenny Matsumura, became the first chief executive of the JCA, leading the charge toward affiliate membership in the International Cricket Council in 1989.
Despite these developments, cricket struggled to expand beyond Japan’s expatriate communities. That began to change in 2008 when Naoki Alex Miyaji was appointed as the JCA’s first full-time chief executive. His first challenge was to increase the number of playing facilities in the country. Given Tokyo’s sky-high rents and a limited budget, Japanese cricket needed a home it could afford.
Building Japan’s cricket home
That’s when Miyaji thought of Sano, Tochigi Prefecture, 80 km north of Tokyo, where he’d lived for a few years. He began to discuss his plans to turn the small city into Japan’s cricketing capital with Kenji Yajima, the chairman of the Sano Chamber of Commerce.
Yajima, for his part, was looking for a way to curb a worrying trend of depopulation that had seen close to 10,000 residents move out of Sano in the last decade. He took the proposal to Sano’s mayor, Masahide Okabe, who was sold on cricket’s potential to attract people to the nondescript city.
The two of them and Miyaji proceeded to set up a cricket supporter’s club, which initially attracted 40 local businesses to invest in cricketing infrastructure and training facilities.
Fast forward 10 years and the number of companies in the supporter’s club has ballooned to 120 and together they have funded six grounds in Sano, including the iconic Sano International Cricket Ground.
“It does have a wow factor. When teams turn up, they don’t expect to find a cricket ground this nice in the middle of Sano,” observed Alan Curr, JCA’s head of cricket operations.
Without the need to share space with other sports, the JCA was able to grow the game beyond expatriate and immigrant communities. Its success is highlighted by the fact that more than half of all students in Sano’s 28 schools have played cricket at least once.
Encouraged by the sport’s growing popularity, the JCA organized a youth summer camp in 2017 with an eye toward building an Under-19 team that could qualify for the 2022 edition of the World Cup. Many ethnically Japanese players were developed at the camp, including all-rounder Kazumasa Takahashi, who finished as Japan’s second-highest wicket-taker and its second-highest run-scorer at the EAP Qualifiers.
As fate would have it, a trio of qualifying victories over Fiji, Samoa, and Vanuatu, along with PNG’s forfeiture, allowed Japan to realize its World Cup dream two whole years ahead of schedule.
As a result, a remarkable 11 out of the current 16 members of Japan’s Under-19 squad will also be eligible for the 2022 edition of the tournament.
Big increase in participation
Japan’s ever-expanding talent pool currently boasts an estimated 4,000 players across youth, men’s, and women’s competitions: a 33 percent jump from participation figures in 2016.
In an effort to increase participation to 5,000 players by 2022, the JCA has begun to establish “cities of cricket” in Akishima (Tokyo), Sanmu (Chiba Prefecture), and Kaizuka (Osaka Prefecture). By 2032, the JCA is eyeing 20,000 players across 22 cities.
When asked about the future of the senior men’s side, Curr is encouraged by the trend of baseball players switching to cricket, including former infielder Shogo Kimura, who made the switch after going unsigned ahead of the 2018 NPB season. Within a year of making the switch, Kimura — now 39 — broke into Japan senior team. He’s part of a group of players who have formed the backbone of the Japan men’s side over the last few years.
Curr, however, is quick to point out that the JCA is prioritizing youth participation as a pipeline for the men’s team.
“What we want now is for people in this Under-19 group pushing them for places,” he said.
Not to be forgotten, women’s cricket is also a key priority for Curr and the JCA.
“We do have some girls who came through with the boys like Ruan Kanai and Kiyo Fujikawa, who both made their debuts last year. They’re 15 and 16 years old (respectively), but we need a much bigger player base for girls and that’s a focus for us right now.”
As things stand, there is every chance Japan will finish in 16th position at the ongoing World Cup. However, whether it’s the youth team or either of the senior outfits, the future of Japanese cricket appears to be in safe hands.
Jay Dansinghani, a Hong Kong-based writer, is a regular contributor for Emerging Cricket, the world’s most popular website covering the associate cricket scene. He has commentated on games at the Cricket World Cup Challenge League. He tweets @jaycricketdude.