As You Think So You Become
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Four years ago, 13-year-olds Kazumasa Takahashi and Reiji Suto had no choice but to break the law. Growing up in Sano, Japan, the young lads' passion for cricket set them apart from their peers. In a country where open spaces allowing sports of any nature are limited, some out-of-the-box, illegal thinking was required.
Takahashi and Suto took their bats and balls to a local recreational centre and found the smooth, skiddy surfaces of shuffleboards conducive to their needs. There they would squeeze as many overs in before old men brandishing fists and walking sticks would chase them away.
In a socially conservative society like Japan's, with its strong reverence for tradition, respect and honour, such a telling-off might have extinguished the boys' love for the game. Thankfully, their mischief was encouraged.
"We were forced to apologise but we never did anything," confessed Alan Curr, Head of Cricket Operations at the Japan Cricket Association (JCA). "It was a great sign that Japanese kids were willing to break the rules to play cricket. It showed the passion exists. Our job is to cultivate it."
Curr, originally from England, arrived in Japan in 2014 and started work in the JCA as a project manager in a junior participation programme before transitioning to his current role. It was around this time that Australian Dhugal Bedingfield, who earned level two coaching badges in Melbourne, returned to the country of his gap year to bolster the organisation's roster.
One of their primary objectives was to reinstate the Under-19 programme that had been disbanded since 2011 after a change in the ICC rulebook. The governing body had stated that countries needed a minimum of 10 youth teams playing at least five matches a season to participate in global U19 competitions.
Qualification for the 2022 World Cup in the West Indies was the bar the JCA set itself. They have shattered all expectations.
Japan will play its first match in a cricket World Cup of any sort on Saturday (January 18) when Marcus Thurgate leads his U19 team against New Zealand in Potchefstroom, South Africa. It is a landmark achievement for a nation outside the small enclave of cricket's elite. What's more, they have reached this promised land with the youngest squad in the tournament.
"We have 11 players who will be eligible to play in the next World Cup," Bedingfield explained. "We're ahead of schedule. It shows that there is potential."
Cricket came to Japan the way it arrived in most places around the world. British merchants and sailors delivered the first official ball in Yokohama in 1863 with a club formed in the city by 1870.
But by the 1880s, Americans started to outnumber the English and baseball became the preferred bat and ball sport in Japan. After the tumult of the early 20th century and through the miraculous economic boom of the 1950s and 60s, this gulf widened.
"Cricket is seen as a strange British sport, but we're trying to change that," Curr said. "Like baseball, we're trying to market cricket as a three-hour game that can be enjoyed by everyone rather than a drawn out event that lasts five days. Tradition is important in both Japanese culture and in cricket, but tradition can't get in the way of progress."
Cricket's development in Japan is an interesting case study on how existing sports infiltrate new markets. With an almost blank canvas, the JCA could draw inspiration from multiple sources.
Baseball has proved to be a lucrative stream of playing talent but rugby's rise has been influential. By reaching the quarterfinals of their home World Cup last year, Japan's rugby union side known as the Brave Blossoms put to bed the idea that Japanese people are not physically capable of succeeding in the rough and tumble sport.
"It's been massive," Bedingfield said of Japan's remarkable run which included victories over established rugby teams Ireland and Scotland. "It showed with coaching, there is nothing holding us back. We've faced the same challenges as rugby; access to facilities, winning the hearts and minds of the public, funding. Now they've got a corporate sponsored league that has attracted foreign imports to help expand the knowledge pool. We're just beginning our journey."
The JCA has also benefited from a new migration law that has seen an increase in skilled migrants from South Asia settle in Japan. These new residents brought with them the customs of their homelands. Tape-ball cricket is not allowed in the street, but youth participation at club level continues to increase, according to Curr.
"It's a wonderful estuary of ideas and talent and enthusiasm," he said. "A big part of our strategy is to leverage the global nature of cricket. We're connecting with organisations around the world and we're starting to send some of our players to have a go in foreign leagues."
Former baseball player Yasushi Yamamoto is currently playing club cricket in Brisbane. A few more in their early 20s have travelled to England tofurther their games.
How far they can go remains unclear. U19 teams representing countries with sophisticated pathways to a professional career use the World Cup as a launchpad for higher honours. Some players competing in this edition are already earning a living in the sport. For Japan, the future is less certain.
"We don't really know what the ceiling is," Bedingfield said. "Getting a contract is probably too much to expect from our players right now. But some have already spoken about their ambitions to play in tournaments like the Big Bash and the IPL. Competing in this World Cup will lay a foundation."
In 2012, the JCA laid out a plan stretching to 2032, broken up in eight-year cycles. It is currently in stage two - titled 'Building a Brighter Future' - which is aiming to field 5,000 registered cricketers playing in five different cities across the country by 2022. The prospect of cricket returning to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 2028 has also spurned enthusiasm from participants and potential sponsors.
"It's a cliche, but when Japan does something, it does it 120%," Curr said. "It's remarkable how rapidly the sport is growing. When Ireland and Afghanistan became tier one teams people were surprised. We're looking to cause a few surprises in South Africa."
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