Japan at ICC U-19 World Cup 2020: The nation's zealous search to carve a cricketing niche
- Japan made its cricket debut at an ICC global event, and there's a massive story behind the blood, sweat and tears poured into it.
In early June 2019, the picturesque Sano International Cricket Ground in Japan played host to the East Asia-Pacific U19 World Cup qualifiers, a tournament in which hosts Japan U19 were joined by U19 teams representing Papa New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, and Fiji.
The hosts began their quest for a spot in the 2020 U-19 World Cup in dominating fashion with a 174-run win over Samoa U19 and followed it up with a 70-run win over Vanuatu U19. With a four-wicket win over Fiji U19 in their third match, their next challenge was to beat PNG U19, a team which had also remained unbeaten in the leadup to the clash.
Yet, under unfortunate circumstances, PNG forfeited the match to the hosts, thereby handing Japan their first-ever entry into an ICC tournament, the U-19 Cricket World Cup in January 2020.
Cut to a little over seven months later, the Japan U19 side, under the leadership of Marcus Thurgate has been grouped alongside New Zealand, Sri Lanka and defending champions, India in Group A.
Also see – Under 19 world cup points table
With the side's maiden World Cup encounter washed out by rain, they are certain to face a stiff task when they face off against the Priyam Garg-led India U19 side. However, more than picking up a win, the side's focus is to gain experience from playing against quality sides says Japan Cricket's Head of Cricket Operations, Alan Curr.
In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Alan speaks about cricket's steady rise in Japan, the modules in place to promote the sport among the youngsters, the key areas of focus from the ongoing Under 19 World Cup and more.
Cricket's been around in Japan for close to 150 years now. Initally baseball was played quite a lot, but in the 1980s, university leagues for men and women saw the Japanese take a lot more interest in cricket.
With the Japanese Cricket Association (JCA) formalising in the early 2000s, Alan claims that cricket was played a lot by expats who came from different parts of the world such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As a result, the U19 side is a good mixture of different cultures, which has helped spread the game all over the country.
"The U19 team currently has five youngsters who are born to Indian parents, and four of them have lived in Japan all their life. Five kids are a 100% Japanese, four kids have one Japanese parent and there's also one kid who is of English heritage. These kids play the game, teach their friends, and that's how the game has been growing over the years."
While the heritage part does add a lot of value to the overall setup, Alan refers to the heartwarming gesture made by the Japanese team post their exit from the 2018 FIFA World Cup, stressing on the importance of needing to inject the importance of maintaining values and morals at a young age.
"The players who come into the Japan cricket team bearing other heritages certainly add a lot of value to the side, but our aim is to ensure that each player is educated in a uniform manner, teaching them to keep up the image of sports in the country and Japan as a whole. Take for example the Japan football team's gesture of cleaning up the dressing room before they left, that's the way we want these kids to develop."
In Japan, there's a rule that players who represent the senior side need to hold a Japanese passport as a pre-requisite to make the side. However, in an approach to promote the game at the junior level, a youngster, irrespective of his heritage needs to have played about three years of junior cricket to represent a club.
Yet, the slight issue that has dented the rapid growth of the sport in the country is the 'Bhukatsu' system at the school level, which allows a child in high school to pick just one sport and does not allow them to experiment playing multiple sports.
"The Bhukatsu system does not allow the kids to pick multiple sports, and since cricket isn't a part of too many schools, the challenge we face is to spread the game. From the JCA's perspective, we are taking steps to create 'cities of cricket', targetting certain areas in the country where we can create top-level facilities and get more schools to promote the sport, in the process enabling the sport to grow in a uniform manner."
Nevertheless, Alan bats for children at a young age needing to play multiple sports, which will undoubtedly aid in improving overall talent.
"While the Bhukatsu caters to kids needing to pick just one sport, international schools allow them to change and pick another sport. However, in most cases, 100% of the concentration is only on one sport. But yes, I believe that playing many sports is a tool to develop multiple skillsets."
What's interesting to note is prior to the qualifiers in 2019, the U19 side had only last taken part in a junior tournament back in 2011. Alan also spoke about the path that was taken to train the youngsters ahead of the tournament.
" The JCA re-ignited the U19 program only in 2018. We wanted to get back into training the youngsters, the boys played warm up games and challenged teams within Japan. We knew the standards of our boys, but we had no clue about how the other teams were gearing up for the competition.
"Eleven players were selected out of the 14 will also be eligible to play the next World Cup two years from now, so that was a big advantage for us."
In the age of franchise-based cricket where most youngsters look to emulate their heroes from the T20 format, Alan claims that JCA has kept away from the shortest format of the sport, owing to multiple reasons.
"We are not into franchise-based cricket at all. Ofcourse, having a corporate league in Japan will be a great addition, but right now the focus is to encourage these youngsters to play a lot more and try to make a living from cricket. Even when it comes to the senior side, all of them have full time jobs and then play club cricket out of passion."
"These youngsters, who go to school, post practice they go into the training room and do three hours of homework. That's how the system works here."
One feature about Japan cricket is owing to the lack of steady funds, the senior side players are asked to pay in order to represent the nation, and that's one obstacle that the JCA are keen on changing.
"We're trying to get in a lot more sponsors to help out Japan cricket financially. Currently we have Mitsubishi Knowledge Industries onboard, and we've also got Tech Mahindra, an India-based firm sponsoring our women's team. Hopefully our plan of setting up cities that extensively promote cricket will help us out as well."
Since the country is not completely cricket-oriented, a pressing issue the JCA have faced is the loss of quality players in the youth teams once they finish their education at the university level. Most of these budding cricketers then move on to focus on their careers, but the developments made in the cricketing structure over the last five to six years has ensured the longevity of youth categories.
"Five years ago, we did not have league structures in place for the U-12, U-15 or U-19 levels and that's why we didn't take part in the qualifiers for over six-seven years. Back then, a 13-year old also would have had to directly play senior level cricket, which was a huge ask."
"But over time, a lot of positive change has been brought about. We've got leagues going on at the U-12, U-15 and U-19 level, and now youngsters can slowly move up the levels and finally collect enough experience to make the national side."
Turning the clock back to the U19 World Cup qualifiers, Alan drew quite a few positives from the side's unbeaten campaign and also shed light on some impressive performers from the tournament.
"The biggest positive for me was the way that the team came together to collect those four wins. I felt that the 170-run win against Samoa was a massive boost for the whole side, we had players performing and we developed some momentum. Captain Marcus Thurgate was in fine form and scored half-centuries, Kazumasa Takahashi picked up wickets and scored runs in the middle order, off-spinner Yugandhar was also bowling very well."
Post the qualification for the 2020 Under 19 World Cup, a lot of emphases was on training the youngsters a lot more, and flying in a specialist coach from Australia was one of the ways to improve the training methodologies.
"Since most of these kids are still pursuing their education and go to school, earlier they would would practice only once a week, and directly play matches on weekends. However, we soon flew in a specialist coach from Australia and we got the players to train 3-4 times a week"
"With the improvement in the magnitude of training, I feel we have a much better side than what was on display at the qualifiers. We are a long way from beating India or Sri Lanka, but I feel the matches in this U19 World Cup are an opportunity for these guys to understand the standards they need to reach in order to challenge big teams in the near future."
With a young batch of players from mixed origins representing Japan in the country's first-ever ICC tournament, the Marcus Thurgate-led side will next face off against defending champions India in their second game of the tournament on 21st January in a test of skill, temperament and ability.
On quizzed about the messaged passed on to the boys ahead of the gruelling prospect of facing the Indian team, Alan says there is only one motive - to enjoy themselves, gain experience and treat every match as a learning curve.
"The message is quite simple, which is to enjoy themselves! Sharing the field with guys who have IPL contracts is an amazing opportunity for each of these guys in the side. We're obviously not used to playing at this level, it will be tough, but the best part is that people will recognize that cricket in Japan is following an upward trajectory."
Indeed, cricket in Japan is on the rise. And given that the youngsters are going to be exposed to some high-level cricket, they are bound to pick up a lot of tricks and more importantly gain immense experience. For cricket fanatics back home in Japan, the encounter against India will present an opportunity to understand, learn and spread the word of the sport's positive influence on shaping careers.
Alan signs off by finally handing out his two cents on the big game against India.
"For these youngsters, it's a big opportunity to face off against a quality opposition. For one, the senior team might not get an opportunity to face India for the next 10-20 years. I mean you can't say for sure, but that's the stage it is at currently."
"This is a good opportunity for our kids to soak up the situation, experience the high-voltage skill on display and show people in Japan that cricket is on the rise. We've got lesser cricket players in Japan than those in India, so certainly there's no pressure factor either."Published 20 Jan 2020, 20:04 IST