As the “second most popular sport on the planet,” cricket is truly a global game, although you might not know that if you looked at its popularity in China.
If you’re not familiar with cricket – can’t tell your offside from your legside, T20 from test matches or batting from bowling – well… get Googling because there’s really no explaining all that here.
Cricket is often quoted as having a global fanbase of 2.5 billion people, though the exact source of this figure is a little unclear – second only to soccer with 3.5 billion fans.
However, over recent decades, the sport’s progress in the potentially lucrative Chinese market has been modest, to put it diplomatically. Hong Kong, with its history as a British colony before returning to China, has something of a stronger cricketing scene compared to the Chinese mainland.
In fact, the word “China” is better associated among cricket enthusiasts with a specific and somewhat unorthodox bowling technique (the actual term is a little too non-PC to publish).
Image via Lalit Sharma
Getting an accurate number on how many people in China play cricket is not easy. The International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s world-governing body, estimated there were around 80,000 people playing cricket in the Middle Kingdom, as reported by DW News. Around half of these were estimated to be women.
This figure is a little over two years old and things may have changed since that time. It’s also not clear if this figure includes solely Chinese nationals or also includes those from China’s expat cricketing community.
Either way, the number represents a drop in the ocean within China’s vast population.
In September of this year, Hangzhou will host the 2022 Asian Games with cricket included on the Games’ schedule. It might not be the same high standard as test cricket or the World Cup, but it is international cricket nonetheless; can this be anything other than positive for cricket in China?
With the Games only a few months away, we thought now would be a good time to take a look at the cricket landscape in China and ask whether Hangzhou 2022 could help the Middle Kingdom warm to this English sport.
China’s Cricketing Expats
Helping to keep China’s cricketing flame burning is a small but committed community of expat residents in China.
This is nothing new. As early as 1858, officers from HMS Highflyer played against a Shanghai cricket team, a game which saw the birth of the Shanghai Cricket Club. Despite an absence after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the club was re-established in 1994 and has been going strong ever since.
The match which saw the formation of the Shanghai Cricket Club in 1858. Image via Vikas Laxman
JJ Lim from Malaysia has been involved in Shanghai’s cricket scene since 1997. He currently serves as the Shanghai Cricket Club’s Youth Development and Liaison Officer for the China Cricket Team.
Lim told That’s about how he first came to discover cricket in Shanghai and the challenges they faced in terms of finding suitable playing facilities.
“When I first arrived in Shanghai, I found a cricket advert in an expats magazine,” he tells us. “I turned up for some nets (equipment used in cricket practice sessions). We played cricket on a rugby ground at Waigaoqiao Pudong. The wicket was made up of three pieces of thick iron sheets which were wheel-barrowed to the middle of the ground, laid as flat as possible and pegged down with straw-matting.”
Vikas Laxman from India serves as Shanghai Cricket Club Captain and previously served as League Director. He notes that facilities in Shanghai have come a long way since the early days and that cricketers in the city are lucky compared to other parts of the country, even though challenges remain.
“We have two main facilities where we host our games – Shanghai Community Sports Center (SCSC) and Wellington College,” Laxman tells That’s. “We face a lot of challenges in terms of ground availability to host our games, as there are others also competing for the facilities.”
Image via Vikas Laxman
What’s the picture like in other parts of China?
Lalit Sharma from India has lived in southern China for 25 years and has been involved in the Shenzhen cricket scene since 2008.
“In 2008, we were 10-12 guys playing cricket in a tennis court with a tennis ball,” Sharma recalls. “Nowadays, we play leather ball cricket in football stadiums.”
He admits that facilities are still a problem.
“Grounds are not easily available. We can’t play in open parks or stadiums that have other games going on for safety reasons.”
These are difficulties which have only been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Stephen from the UK, who requested we only use his first name, works in Beijing and has been captain of the Beijing Ducks Cricket Club since 2019.
A Beijing Ducks batsman ready for action. Image via Beijing Ducks Cricket Club
“There are severe limitations on available areas to play,” Stephen tells us. “Cricket requires very specific fields and pitches and there is only one venue to our knowledge in Beijing right now; that venue has been very sensitive to the current pandemic situation.
“We often have to try and adapt venues to cricket and that itself can cause issues.”
Members of the Beijing Ducks Cricket Club following a training session. Image via Beijing Ducks Cricket Club
Teams from Hong Kong and other parts of south China compete in the Shenzhen World XI. Image via Lalit Sharma
While facilities might pose difficulties, getting good-quality cricket equipment tends not to be so much of a problem.
Laxman points out that before restrictions on international travel were imposed, cricketers in China would travel to India, Pakistan, the UK and elsewhere and bring back equipment. Nowadays, cricketers rely more on buying equipment from inside China.
“Several local companies have started selling equipment from within China. So, now we have liberty to buy it within China and avoid the hassle of carrying it from our home country.”
Lim agrees that getting equipment such as cricket balls from overseas is not a problem. The task has certainly been made easier by the likes of 4D Sports, a Guangdong-based company which imports and sells cricket equipment on Taobao.
All practical issues aside, the enthusiasm among China’s expat cricketing community is undeniable. This is borne out in the numerous leagues, tournaments and tours which are organized in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and elsewhere.
In the 2021 season, Stephen played an active role in organizing fixtures for the main Beijing Cricket League made up of four teams, though the league was disrupted by COVID-19.
Laxman introduces the structure of the Shanghai league:
“Division 1 is the elite division and consists of 40-over games. Division 2 is an amateur level division and consists of 30-over games. And Division 3 is more social-level cricket and consists of 25-over games.”
In addition to organizing tournaments using a hard leather ball, Sharma also organizes tennis ball cricket in Shenzhen – “… an easier and safer format.”
Some tours even take clubs overseas; the Shanghai Cricket Club found itself traveling to North Korea in 2008. The Club’s website states that they were the “first club to play organized cricket in North Korea, competing for the Pyongyang Friendship Trophy.”
ESPN reported that these were the first ever formal cricket matches in North Korea which took place on May 2, 2008 at Pyongyang’s Taesongsan Park.
We can only imagine that popularizing cricket in North Korea has its own set of challenges compared with China.
For now, many of China’s cricketing expats share the sentiment that they would like to see a return to pre-COVID-19 normality (who wouldn't?).
“The sport relies on a steady influx of new people arriving in the country, and that simply can’t happen right now because of safety concerns,” Stephen stresses.
Laxman expresses his desire to organize more games played between clubs from different cities across the country.
He also expressed his desire for Shanghai to have its own purpose-built cricket ground with a grass wicket – a desire no doubt shared by many cricketers in China.
Can Cricket Burst Its Expat Bubble?
Those who spoke to That’s each expressed their desire for more Chinese nationals to get involved in China’s cricket scene.
Stephen noted that he would like the Beijing cricket scene to become more involved with the two national teams. Meanwhile, Sharma said he hoped the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games would be something of a boost for garnering enthusiasm for cricket among locals.
China (in this case referring to the Chinese mainland) has had associate membership of the ICC since 2004, and the organization has long had the country in its sights as a target market.
The ICC General Manager of Development William Glennwright visited the country in 2017 with the aim of better understanding the Chinese cricketing market, as reported by Xinhua. He paid a visit to Shenyang to watch the men’s national development squad.
An article published by Forbes on November 28, 2021, acknowledged that when it came to cricket, China was still a “work in progress.” The article also stressed that in recent years, the ICC had started to focus more effort on other emerging cricketing markets, particularly the US.
As Shanghai Cricket Club’s Youth Development and Liaison Officer for the China Cricket Team, Lim shared with That’s some of his thoughts on the challenges faced by the Chinese Cricket Association, China’s national governing body for the sport.
“It was unfortunate that in 2020, the Chinese team’s foreign coach, appointed by the Asia Cricket Council, was unable to travel to China due to travel restrictions,” Lim says. “So, the Chinese team, mainly made up of students aged between 15 to 18 years old, had their development and progress badly affected.”
Lim now plays a role in the team’s preparations for the upcoming Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games. He hopes for more collaboration between the Shanghai Cricket Club and the Chinese Cricket Association in the future and that cricket will reach more of China’s school students.
There have been some efforts on the part of Chinese cricket enthusiasts to help popularize the sport among China’s vast population.
Liu Jingmin is a professor of sport science at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He published a Chinese-language book entitled 板球基础教程 (banqiu jichu jiaocheng), or Guide to the Basics of Cricket, covering everything from the sport’s history to the rules of play and standard cricketing techniques.
The book was written in collaboration with the Asian Cricket Council and the Chinese Cricket Association, the latter of which Liu is a member.
That’s reached out to Professor Liu via email to request an interview. However, we received no reply.
We also got in touch with a national team coach, via WeChat, but still we had no luck. The coach himself would not accept interviews. Meanwhile, we were told the players were too young and permission for interviews would not be granted.
Needless to say, speaking to Chinese nationals involved in China’s cricketing scene was not easy. This was compounded by the fact that even getting basic information was difficult; the Chinese Cricket Association doesn’t even have a website, though information is available via the Shanghai Cricket Association and the Asian Cricket Council.
Nonetheless, we had no trouble discovering the Chinese national teams’ various achievements over recent years.
2010 marked something of a turning point for cricket in China as Guangzhou hosted the Asian Games.
While China’s men’s cricket team didn’t win a match at the Games, the women’s team finished in a commendable fourth place. They beat Malaysia and Thailand, before losing out in the bronze-medal match to Japan.
A year later, the women’s team were finalists in the Asian Cricket Council Women’s T20 Championship.
Along with the Chinese mainland’s first purpose-built cricket pitch with a grass wicket, the women’s team’s success is perhaps one of the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Game’s greatest legacies for cricket in China.
Hangzhou 2022 – The Boost Chinese Cricket Needs?
The Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games are scheduled to take place September 10-25, 2022.
One way in which China’s cricket scene will benefit from the Games is in the form of a purpose-built cricket ground with a grass wicket, the second on the Chinese mainland.
The ground, located at Zhejiang University of Technology’s Pingfeng Campus, is reported to be near completion.
The Asian Games is not a huge highlight on the cricketing calendar. Cricketing giant India has already hinted that they will send neither a men’s nor a women’s team to the Games due to other priorities, as reported by Reuters.
Moreover, garnering enough enthusiasm to pull in a big crowd might be difficult. Is it possible that COVID-19 restrictions might mean only selected spectators can attend as was the case during the Winter Olympics and Paralympics? We’ll wait and see.
China’s cricket scene would be wise to focus its energy on fixing structural problems. But that doesn’t mean Hangzhou 2022 can’t help spread the word about cricket to those who would otherwise be unfamiliar with the sport.
Before then, we await the arrival of summer and with it the cricket season – a season which hopefully sees players across China from all walks of life participating in the true spirit of cricket.
[Cover image via Lalit Sharma]