Flemish shepherds and wool traders playing a game in which a ball was hit with the curved end of a crook (Photo: Alamy)
TO RETURN TO watching the game of cricket after a two-decade hiatus is to feel somewhat like Alice in Wonderland. Players have six packs. It is no longer possible to wander away from the TV set for a lengthy bathroom break secure in the knowledge that nothing of much interest would have transpired by the time you sauntered back. And the Indian team actually wins matches. For someone like me, who hasn’t followed the game since the 1990s, this last fact, in particular, feels quite absurd: like pigs flying, or Xi Jinping voluntarily ceding power to someone more qualified.
My reintroduction to cricket has been courtesy of a post-surgery recovery period that I am currently undergoing. Being supine for much of the day, my son suggested I watch the ongoing T20 World Cup. Within the span of a game or two, I found myself happily re-addicted to the drama of bat and ball. However, amongst the hailstorm of boundaries that defines this form of cricket, I did occasionally feel nostalgic for the wristy single, or even the judiciously unplayed ball.
Now, this is not the knee-jerk reaction of the typical conservative, in mourning for Test cricket’s waning star. More than most, I am aware of how despite its reputation for English upper-class traditionalism, cricket has always been more malleable than imagined. In fact, it might not even be English at all.
I WAS BASED IN the Belgian capital Brussels when I reported on the story that an Australian academic, Paul Campbell, had chanced upon a 1533 poem which had the world of cricket clean bowled. Penned by John Skelton and called ‘The Image of Ipocrisie’, the poem had many sport historians convinced that the etymological origin of the word “cricket” was—tad da—Flemish or Dutch, originating from what is the northern part of modern-day Belgium.
The poem was primarily a rant against the church but included the following passage: “O lorde of Ipocrites/Nowe shut vpp your wickettes/And clape to your clickettes!/A! Farewell, kings of crekettes!”
While the spelling is unfamiliar to the modern eye, mentioning “wickettes” and “crekettes” makes the poem the earliest written reference to the sport. There is some dispute about who exactly Skelton was referring to as the “kings of crekettes”. One widely held interpretation is that he was alluding to Flemish weavers and shepherds who emigrated from the Low Countries to England in the 14th century.
It is possible, following this line of reasoning, that cricket has the medieval wool trade to thank for its birth.
Campbell’s discovery of the poem followed longstanding research by German academic Heiner Gillmeister who had spotted the Flemish connection to cricket decades earlier. Cricket was commonly thought to have evolved out of Anglo-Saxon children’s games. However, Gillmeister was unable to relate the term “cricket” to any Anglo-Saxon word, or even any French word. He then came across the Flemish phrase “met de krik ketsen”, meaning “to chase with a curved stick”.
Gillmeister’s theory was that the very early version of cricket probably involved Flemish shepherds and wool traders playing a game in which a ball was hit with the curved end of a crook. This form of the sport was probably closer to hockey than cricket, which makes T20 just the latest along a continuum of constantly morphing cricketing contours.
BUT THE MOST unexpected place that I found a cricket story to report on wasn’t Belgium. It was Sano, a nondescript city in central Honshu, the Japanese archipelago’s largest island. On the outskirts of this sparsely populated location, the abrupt appearance of an international standard cricket ground was mirage-like. But it was no optical illusion.
Sano billed itself as the “Home of Cricket” in Japan. Given that almost everyone in Japan was more likely to identify cricket as a small, green singing insect than a sport, this was a somewhat underwhelming claim. But the city was betting on the game to transform its declining demographic and economic fortunes.
Heiner Gillmeister’s theory was that the very early version of cricket probably involved Flemish shepherds and wool traders playing a game in which a ball was hit with the curved end of a crook. This form of the sport was probably closer to hockey than cricket
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This unlikely turn of events involved a mix of entrepreneurial city hall officials and a national government strategy to revitalise regional economies, stirred in with a dollop of serendipity in the form of a half-Japanese, half- Scottish cricket enthusiast called Naoki Alex Miyaji.
The Japan Cricket Association (JCA) was an organisation that existed only under a disembodied name until Miyaji, who’d learned to play cricket as a child during summer holidays spent in the UK, became its first full-time chief executive in 2008. The JCA office was at first located in Tokyo, but it quickly became apparent that finding and developing a cricketing ground in a city as congested as the Japanese capital would be impossible. Miyaji cast around for other locations and eventually settled on Sano, given that it was within 100 kilometres of Tokyo, and most importantly, had a mayor who happened to be casting about for strategies to revitalise the town.
In Japan, a slumping birth rate combined with largescale migration to big cities means that hundreds of towns across the country are in danger of disappearing altogether in the coming decades. The national government has responded by providing a generous budget to regional bodies to invest in creative ways to stem depopulation. Cities and towns across Japan have taken to vying with each other in positioning themselves as centres of arts and crafts, natural beauty, or specialty foods to attract tourism and businesses.
But what do you do when you are not particularly picturesque, historic, or artsy? Sano, whose population had declined from about 130,000 to 116,000 over the last decade, was grappling with this question when city officials met Miyaji.
“I met Miyaji san and came to know that this sport called cricket had an international viewership that could compare to soccer. One billion fans!” Kenji Yajima, the chairman of the Sano Chamber of Commerce, told me. Yajima was aware that other Japanese cities had latched onto niche sports. He alluded to Sapporo, on Hokkaido island, which has promoted itself as a curling centre. “If they can use curling, we can use cricket,” he concluded.
Yajima and the Sano mayor set up a cricket supporters’ club that included prominent local businesses, with the result that the Sano International Cricket ground was opened in 2016. They also managed to introduce the sport into the regular curriculum of six local schools. Given that the JCA conducts regular cricket camps in other schools as well, a youngster in Sano today has more than an even chance of at least knowing the basics of the sport. That’s a far cry from a few years ago. The deputy mayor, Eisaku Kato, said that when he first heard about cricket, he thought it was a type of biscuit.
THE COMMON REFRAIN of all the cricketing communities of the countries I have reported from—China, which became an affiliate member of the ICC in 2004, Belgium, Indonesia, and Japan—is a fervent desire for the sport to get Olympic status. They all believe that the Olympic Games are the key to making the sport a truly global one.
And there is now the slim possibility that their hopes may be realised. In August, the International Olympic Committee shortlisted cricket for a review along with eight other sporting disciplines for possible inclusion in the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. Howzatt for a fillip to the sport?
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open