Cricket in China needs a spark. (Photo by Marcio Machado/Getty Images)
In the aftermath of the International Cricket Councils (ICC) recent era-defining board meeting, the U.S. cemented its status as the bearer of the sports global aspirations.
Cricket, a British sport traditionally confined mostly to Commonwealth countries, has for some time been trying to enter new terrain and unsurprisingly administrators have been besotted with the worlds biggest sports market much to the chagrin of some neglected Associate nations.
The U.S, long-viewed as thesleeping giantof cricket, will co-host the 2024 T20 World Cup along with the West Indies an accelerated timetable due to the ICCs much-hyped bid for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
It all means the U.S. will become something of an epi-centre on and off field this decade in a remarkable transformation after being viewed as a laughingstock for years.
There was a time, however, when China a mostly forgotten cricket nation - was embraced with almost as much gusto by the sports decision makers.
From a strategic point of view, U.S. and China were the two target markets. U.S. was No.1 and China was No.2, Tim Anderson, the ICCs head of global development from 2010-16, told me.
We needed to demonstrate return on investment. Having more competitive teams on the stage which we're seeing now - but equally it was about how the emerging cricket market could impact the economics globally of the sport.
Tim Anderson visited China to promote and develop cricket. (Photo by Marcio Machado/Getty Images)
In the mid-2000s, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) which is effectively the ICCs Asian office but has its own revenue streams - had deemed China a special project according to Aminul Islam, who at the time was an ACC development officer heavily focused onChina. With foresight and resources, cricket was included at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou and deemed a success marked by Chinas womens team finishing fourth.
It was hoped to be a game-changer for a country with no cricket tradition, relatively modest numbers of expats from Commonwealth nations and infamous bureaucratic hurdles negating the ICCs plans to have staff members based there permanently.
"China was different to the U.S. on those levels, said Anderson, who runs a sports consultancy business these days. But China also is a big market and has huge global power. There were some geopolitical opportunities between China and India, Pakistan and Australia that could be explored through cricket.
"There had been a push to get international cricket between Full Members there.
The ACC created 200 level 1 coaches and targeted universities to fuel crickets popularity. Women, in particular, took to cricket faster and with pathways easier for a quick rise up the rankings, there was hope a successful national team could inspire a generation.
The womens team has always been pretty good. They could become something like Thailand, Anderson said noting Thailands remarkable rise in womens cricket which has just recently seemingly been stunted by ICC red tape.
Meg Lanning, Captain of Australia Cricket Team (l) talks to the Chinese National Teamin Shanghai. ... [+] (Photo by Marcio Machado/Getty Images)
Even though the national womens team is still ranked 26thin T20, there are no grandiose talks of cricket in China right now. Forget visions of being a global power, Chinese cricket barely has visibility. The Chinese Cricket Association, which has been a member of the ICC since 2004, doesnt even have a website and seemingly shrouded in mystery like some type of shadowy organization.
Its led to observers on the ground fearing cricket in China has stalled and that the ICC has lost interest in its once pet project.
They point to the mens team being ranked 86 of 90 in the T20 rankings and the unused cricket ground in Guangzhou the showpiece at the 2010 Asian Games as confirmation of its sad slide and wasted potential.
However, Islam, who is now the ICC Asia regional development manager, admitted that cricket in China had grown slowly but said development was occurring through 21 universities, where it is recognized as an official sport under the curriculum.
A million students know the game and play at least once a week, said Islam, the former Bangladesh captain who speaks fluent Mandarin. There are about 2000 higher performance players coming from high schools and universities. Nine regions have been introduced to cricket.
China women's team still has a respectable ranking. (Photo by Marcio Machado/Getty Images)
With cricket returning to the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, a $20 million beautiful stadium is being built in Zhejian provinces capital which in the future can legitimately attract top end international cricket, according to Islam. But Shanghai the glitzy global financial hub is earmarked to be crickets home base in China.
Shanghai has the highest number of cricket players, Islam said. Its an international city and makes sense for crickets base to be there. Shanghai to Hangzhou is only one-hour away. Eventually we will look for land and build an (internationally accredited) ground in Shanghai.
It all sounds promising at the grassroots, but cricket undoubtedly needs more exposure amid a competitive sports landscape as rivals swarm into the lucrative Chinese market. In this tough environment, support from the Chinese government is crucial and thus far has not been forthcoming towards cricket but that could all change amid the sports $3 million Olympic bid.
Administrators hoping for crickets expansion into places such as China had long pushed for Olympic inclusion only to be rebuffed by reticent powers India and England. But with the board finally on the same page, cricket could be unlocked in a country like China where Olympic sports are granted priority.
If cricket got into the Olympics that would change the dynamics for the sport in China, Anderson said. China qualifying for a World Cup or cricket being part of the Olympics would be a thing.
As soon as it is in the Olympics, the whole face ofChinacricket will change, Islam concurred. Olympics would unlock a lot of resources from Chineseauthorities towards cricket.
With momentum building towards crickets Olympic bid, private promoters are eyeing China with renewed interest.
If the Olympics is happening then franchise cricket leagues could take place in China, said Haroon Lorgat, the former ICC chief executive turned T10 cricket advocate.
The experienced South African administrator is spearheading the growth and development of T10 - an unofficial 10-over per side format through global leagues such as the ongoing tournament in Abu Dhabi.
But gaining a foothold in Hong Kong, which has a cricket tradition and regarded as a top Associate nation, could be the first step towards China.
Cricket has a strong tradition in Hong Kong. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
"A T10 league is easier to establish in Hong Kong, which has grounds and facilities, but that could spark interest in China and perhaps places like Guangzhou, Lorgat said. Arguably T10 is a better vehicle to get started in new markets as it is easier to run multiple games per day. It might attract interest in youngsters in China.
Cricket has made great strides in conquering its American dream, but China looms as a far greater obstacle to legitimize the ICCs goal of unshackling this sport far beyond its Commonwealth origins.
China is growing and can help crickets perception worldwide, Islam said. WithoutChina, you can't say this is a global game.
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