Professional sports look at the promise of the Chinese market as dreamily as any other industry.Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' star center, has given America's National Basketball Association an in. Top European soccer teams like Spain's Real Madrid and England's Manchester United vie for the hearts and yuan of Chinese fans. Now one of the least globalized, though most widely played of games is trying to get in on the act -- cricket.
Forget the gentle rap of leather on willow, warm beer and English gentlemen in cream flannels. Cricket's epicenter has moved to Asia, particularly the sub-continent where it is a raucous and highly-charged affair played before huge crowds. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are among the top cricket playing nations. Bangladesh, too, numbers among the elite group of ten "Test" nations, who play the highest level international cricket.
The success of Asian nations at the highest levels of the game has not gone unnoticed by Chinese officials. It was while accompanying a Chinese rugby team to a youth tournament in New Zealand in 1996 that Li Gaochao, now a deputy director at the sports ministry, then a more junior official, saw Sri Lanka defeat Australia in the 1996 final of cricket's World Cup, held every four years.
They saw how well Asian countries, even small islands like Sri Lanka, did in international competition; the extensive coverage of cricket on television throughout Asia; and the regional prestige gained as a result.
Cricket administrators saw dollars. "The potential benefits and commercial revenues from (China's) presence in the cricket world are enormous," says Syed Ashraful Huq, chief executive of the Asian Cricket Council, the regional arm of the game's governing body, the International Cricket Council . "As soon as China breaks though, I foresee the total global revenues for cricket increasing by 30 to 40 per cent."
Cricket is not a big-money game by professional-sports standards. Its revenues, as best anyone can estimate, are of the order of the hundreds of millions of dollars. The operating revenues of the International Cricket Council, the sport's governing body, were $49.3 million in 2005, which included income from Global Cricket Corp, the News Corp-owned company to which the council has subcontracted marketing of its broadcasting and sponsorship rights to the four big international tournaments until 2007.
But national cricket boards also sell the broadcasting rights for Test matches against other countries. India's for the next four years have recently been contentiously sold for $300 million, with a local media mogul, Subhash Chandra's, Zee Telefilms battling it out with ESPN Star Sports, Rupert Murdoch's joint venture with The Walt Disney Corp. Televised cricket is a $150 million a year advertising market in India alone.
An estimated 100 million Chinese watched the basketball competition at the Athens Olympics, so there is a latent market to be tapped. China would be an attractive market for the ICC's official sponsors, LG Electronics, Pepsico, Hutchison, Hero Honda, Indian Oil and Cable & Wireless. The ACC already has HSBC, Standard Chartered and Indian Oil sponsoring its regional tournaments. Other potential sponsors include companies like General Motors, which already spends millions of dollars sponsoring golf in China.
The dark cloud to this silver lining? Hardly anyone plays cricket in China. There are at best a few score active players, overwhelmingly ex-pats, and no professionals.
The Chinese government is working to change that. They're looking to build a pipeline of young athletes, instructing some schools in Beijing and Shanghai to play the game. The Chinese General Administration for Sport has earmarked a playing ground in Beijing, which the ACC will develop into an international-standard venue.
The government hand-picked 30 basketball, softball and table tennis coaches from universities in Beijing and Shanghai to attend a recent ACC training camp in Beijing. Inter-university matches are scheduled to start next year. Indoor cricket, which uses a softer ball than the outdoor version, is also being promoted to familiarize Chinese with the game.
"Coaching, funding and facilities are in place to fast-track China into playing one-day matches against ICC Affiliates and Associates within the next few years," says Huq. The state-run Chinese Cricket Association joined the ICC and the ACC as an affiliate last year and set itself a goal of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup.
Cricket is not unknown in China. The first recorded cricket match was in 1858, and Shanghai had a cricket ground, albeit in the middle of a racecourse, by 1863. The international community kept the game alive until the Communist Revolution in 1949. It didn't stir again until after Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors to the outside world in the late 1970s. Teams from Hong Kong started to visit in the 1980s, and by the late 1990s, enthusiasts had managed to stage an international six-a-side tournament that is now held annually in Shanghai and attracts some well-known international names, mostly from Australia.
The sport, Zhang Xioaning, Li's successor, has said "is perfectly suited to the Chinese people." Trinidadians of Chinese descent have played international cricket for the West Indies. Skill and strategy count for more than size. Cricket is not a contact sport--a point that struck Li forcibly in 1996 as his rugby players were suffering badly at the hands of larger, heavier opposition. While it requires stamina, good balance, timing and a quick eye, it doesn't necessarily require being big. India's Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the world's finest batsman, stands just 5-foot 6-inches tall.
At the recent ACC training camp, "the coaches took a couple of hours or so to pick up the basics. The children had them in five minutes" says Rumesh Ratnayake, a former Sri Lanka international cricketer who is now the ACC's development officer responsible for China. "I have never seen such a quick uptake in all my time as a coach."
Couple this with China's top down approach to sports, which has made it world class in swimming and track in less than 30 years, and it would be a foolish to bet against them. "The official will is there to make it happen, as they very much want to engage with Asia via cricket," says Huq.