China: the final frontier?

Maybe my eyes were missing the signs, but as thousands of spectators participated in the opening ceremony at the Olympic games, enthusiastically banging the drums and waving the flags that had been so helpfully provided, then imitating the movement of doves with their flapping hands, China didn’t look like a nation that was pining for cricket. Then again, any country that can go from brutally cutting short a student demonstration to talking of ‘one dream, one world’ in the space of two decades can probably find within itself a capacity for mastering even the most arcane and least adaptable of games. That is what the ICC is hoping, at any rate.

China is the Holy Grail for sports’ administrators and cricket is no exception. This week, like an old imperialist poring over a map and carving up the possibilities, David Morgan, the President of the ICC, handed the responsibility for China to his principal advisor, Inderjit Singh Bindra. ‘We have already made great strides in developing the game in China,’ said Morgan, ‘with Inderjit now joining us we have the chance to take the game in China to a new level.’ Off you go, mate, bring back the spoils and try not to upset the natives along the way.

Bindra came over all enthusiastic: ‘China has huge potential for growth and we will explore ways of ensuring cricket is able to get a secure foothold within the country,’ he said, sounding a little like Napoleon must have felt before setting off to conquer Russia. But China, like Russia, is an inhospitable place and it is likely that Bindra’s army will suffer the same fate, falling well short of its target as the first snowfall of the winter arrives.

There have been targets in China for a while and these have ebbed and flowed according to the success of the mission. When investment began in 2004, the idea was put forward that China would be good enough to qualify for the 2019 World Cup and achieve Test status by 2020. Now, mere exposure to the game is the aim: 60,000 by 2012, says the Chinese Cricket Association, rising to 150,000 by 2020, fuelled by cricket’s presence in the Asian games in Guangzhou in 2010.

At the heart of all these optimistic targets is cricket’s desire to globalise and China’s capacity for change, renewal and, in particular, the belief that when the Chinese set their hearts on something then nothing can stop them. This is, after all, a country that only won its first gold medal in the1984 Olympics. But even if China wants to take cricket to its bosom, then the fate of the Chinese football team at the Olympics should sound a cautionary note: that when it comes to team sports, sports that rely on a degree of instinct and lateral thinking, China’s ‘training methods’ are not all that successful.

Two defeats and then a draw against mighty New Zealand prompted an unusual degree of criticism, so much so that, according to two Chinese journalists, the Central Propaganda Agency ordered main news organisations to cease carping This didn’t stop Li Weifeng, who captained the team to its defeat against Brazil: ‘we play soccer like the Brazilians play ping-pong,’ he said, (which provoked another round of criticism from the Chinese coach of the Brazilian ping-pong team.)

China bends its knee to no-one where individual pursuits like swimming, weight-lifting and shooting are concerned, but it hasn’t yet got the team thing. The Asian Cricket Council’s website indicates where the mission to inculcate ‘shen shi yun dong’ (‘the noble game’) into the hearts and minds of the Chinese stands right now: against a population of 1,321,851,888, it lists 0 turf pitches, 0 cricket clubs, 4 cricket grounds and a blank next to the name of the national captain. There are 154 coaches who have a level 1 certificate, which allows them ‘to assist more qualified coaches developing aspects of coaching under direct supervision,’ but there is no information on how many more-qualified coaches there are to supervise them. Still, it’s good to know under ‘recent achievements’ that China won the Global Development Awards photo of the year in 2005, a sweet, staged photo of three Chinese children playing soft ball cricket on the Great Wall of China.

The push into China is part of a wider drive for globalisation, as if the ICC believes that the game cannot be successful unless it is constantly stretching the boundaries, despite the problems closer to home. Enormous sums are spent on development, $13m from the ICC coffers last year alone alongside the $300m that was pledged in July for the next seven years. And yet figures recently released suggest that the rewards for such investment are often meagre: in Kenya, for example, the numbers of senior cricketers has actually fallen in the last five years.

This is unsurprising. Cricket’s great expansion coincided with the colonial period, being as it was a point of contact between the colonisers and the colonised. Cricket provided a vehicle for the missionary zeal of those spreading British values, and a focus for those determined to resist them. Without that extra spice, it is just another game.

Cricket-watching may well be a popular past-time in China in 2020, as it is now. For the uninitiated, cricket-fighting is a hugely popular sport in China- the champion insects are given almost royal treatment- fuelling as it does a passion for gambling. No amount of money spent by a game intent on spreading its wings is likely to change the fact that by 2020 the participants will still be of the six-legged kind.