Fri, Jan 17, 2020 - Page 16 News List

Japan hoping U-19 World Cup debut is just the start

Reuters, TOKYO

Cricket is barely on the radar in Japan, where baseball, soccer and sumo wrestling dominate the sporting landscape, but all that could be about to change after its under-19 team qualified for the World Cup in South Africa.

Of course, it is early days yet, as the Japanese Cricket Association (JCA) was founded in 1984 and only made an International Cricket Council member in 1995. The U-19 side were founded in 2017 and took part in last year’s East-Asia Pacific qualifying tournament to get some practice.

However, after a 170-run win over Samoa in their opener, they went undefeated to book their place in the U-19 World Cup, which starts today. Five players of Indian origin and several with mixed heritage play on the side, reflecting Japan’s slowly increasing cultural diversity.

“Cricket is an international sport and with the changing Japanese domestic demographic, this is what the future is going to be,” said JCA chief executive Naoki Alex Miyaji, who has a Japanese father and Scottish mother.

Miyaji pointed to the success of Japan’s rugby union team at last year’s Rugby World Cup, in which a squad featuring 16 players born outside the country reached the quarter-finals for the first time.

“We need to change and see that traditional Japanese thinking is not going to help Japan in the future. Japan needs to open up a bit,” Miyaji said.

In a bid to increase the number of people playing cricket from the current 3,000, the JCA have targeted two “Cities of Cricket”: Sano, which is 80km north of Tokyo, and Akishima, which is to the west of the capital.

“Rather than throw a massive blanket over Tokyo and capture everyone we can, we have gone for a more targeted approach,” JCA cricket operations head Alan Curr said. “We got cricket into the schools and set up the junior Cricket Blast program. It is six-a-side, fun cricket where everyone gets a bat, everyone gets a bowl. It is all about being inclusive and having a laugh.”

The program has produced 11 of the 14 players in the U-19 squad.

Curr took the squad on a whirlwind 10-day, five-match tour of Australia to prepare for the World Cup and vice captain Neel Date said he was living the dream.

“Playing international cricket in some form was always a huge dream for me, and the U-19 World Cup is making that dream a reality,” the 18-year-old said.

Date — who has Indian heritage, but has lived in Japan since he was an infant — said that his love for cricket has begun to rub off on his Japanese school friends.

“For them, my name has almost become synonymous with cricket,” Date said.

Regardless of how they perform in South Africa, the players hope that this is just the beginning for cricket in Japan.

“It will be a matter of utmost joy to see not just expats, but also Japanese kids playing cricket in the park, like we did when we were 10,” Date said.

“If I get to see this sight 20 years from now and know that I contributed a tiny fraction to make the situation of cricket in Japan that way, it would be a boundlessly satisfying experience,” Date added.

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