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Another World Game?

Rupert Coy explores the increasing popularity of cricket outside of traditional heartlands.

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A young Chinese leg-spinner created cricketing history last month by taking the first double hat-trick in an international T20 game. Despite Zhong Wenyi’s remarkable performance, South Korea still won the Asian Games match by six runs. On show was the first generation of homegrown players from the unlikeliest of countries.

With its tea breaks, googlies and silly mid-offs, cricket is regarded as an almost comical stereotype of Britain. Like Monty Python, it has a quirkiness that is difficult to translate. Until recently, cricket outside the test playing nations largely consisted of small gatherings of expatriates from the cricketing world. The game’s length and complexity makes it particularly difficult for outsiders to understand and appreciate.

The International Cricket Council’s (ICC) recent expansionism has led to national cricket teams in as diverse nations as Uganda, Oman and Thailand, but many of these squads are filled with expats. Wisden reported on a British student who began his gap year teaching in Argentina and ended it opening the batting for them against Guyana.

The last few years have seen a substantial increase in local engagement throughout the non-cricketing world. T20 cricket—three one-hour bite-sized games, with fireworks and cheerleaders funded in part by Bollywood billionaires—is capturing audiences worldwide. It has penetrated cultural boundaries that test matches never could breach.

This has been reflected by the growth of domestic cricket in China. There are now 34 clubs in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and these are actively encouraging community participation, such as the inclusion of school teams in their competitions. The Shandong Government sponsored a men’s and women’s cricket tour of New Zealand, and dual-passport holders have been banned from playing in the national team to ensure continued ownership of cricket among the locals. Ex-pats bring invaluable knowledge and experience, but an over-reliance on them stilts homegrown development.

Similarly, Nepal was transformed by its national team’s qualification for the T20 World Cup. Fans swamped the airport to greet returning players, while local governments and the ICC are now injecting money into school cricket programs.

Previously, Canada and the USA qualified for the One Day International World Cup and Champions Trophy respectively on the strength of ex-professionals from India and the Caribbean with dual passports. In stark contrast, Papua New Guinea will be competing in next year’s ODI World Cup in Australia and New Zealnd due entirely to the development of high-quality local cricketers. The new strength of their domestic cricket infrastructure also makes them far more likely to achieve the continued success that has eluded nations overly reliant on émigrés.

Outside a dozen devoted nations, cricket is still viewed as an exotic—and British—game by much of the world. But for the first time in China, Nepal, South Korea and elsewhere, children are growing up with a bat and ball in their hands.

In the early 20th Century, sub-continental cricketers eschewed the colonial way of playing cricket and devised markedly different strategies, developing a heavy reliance on spin bowling and wristy batting.

Just maybe, this new expansion of cricket will produce another revolution.

Additional reporting by Izabella Antoniou

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