Japan, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Canada, United States, Zimbabwe… An astonishing range of cultures comes with some of the 16 nations gathered in South Africa to take part in the 2020 ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup, a tournament made rich through its diversity and consistent ability to set youngsters on their way to stardom.
Trinidad’s Brian Lara, New Zealand’s Kane Williamson, India’s Virat Kohli and South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada are just some of the heavyweights, past and present, to have cut their international teeth at this stage, underlining the tournament’s importance in the bigger picture.
Then there is the story of Japan, whose cricketing interest is mushrooming in much the same way that rugby and football have done in a nation steeped in tradition and precision.
“Those two sporting codes have sort of been the blueprint for cricket, in terms of what can be achieved with the right structures,” said Japan’s Under-19 cricket coach, Dhugal Bedingfield. “If you remember, a few years ago Japan rugby was getting smashed whenever they played. But the game has developed phenomenally and I think everyone who saw how the team performed at the Rugby World Cup can attest to that.”
There are, of course, unique challenges when it comes to creating a culture of cricket in Japan, given the dynamics of the population.
“It’s not that easy to stick a cricket field in the middle of Tokyo,” said Bedingfield with a smile, by way of explanation. Japanese cricket has had to adapt to the lay of the land, and the traditional cricket bases are outside the metropolis.
“We have a strong cricket community in Sano, which is about an hour’s drive out of Tokyo and has a population of around 120 000. It’s not ideal to drive that far for a game of cricket, but there is an enthusiasm for the game,” he said.
Sano, tucked beneath mountains and famous for its ramen and Outlet Mall, has now also become an outlet for cricketing expression. It was there that the East Asia-Pacific qualifier for the 2020 ICC Cricket World Cup was hosted. It is in Sano that many in the team playing in South Africa have honed their games.
The development of an international-standard stadium, the Sano International Cricket Ground, hastened proceedings. The Japanese are famed for being on time but, incredibly, this generation of cricket dreams is ahead of schedule.
“We were aiming at qualification for the next World Cup, so I suppose you could say we are a little bit ahead of schedule,” said Bedingfield. “We surprised a few people by getting through the qualifying tournament [for the Under-19 World Cup] undefeated, and here we are.”
The squad is reflective of the changing face of society in modern Japan. A lot of the players are of dual nationality, but all are proudly Japanese.
Captain Marcus Thurgate might sound like a westerner by dint of his name. But, born and bred in Japan, he has a big role to play for his side – a young side that is well aware of its place in the game but also cognisant of what can happen in major tournaments.
Terrifically for Japan, this will not be their last dance. The bulk of the squad is young enough to return for the next Under-19 World Cup in two years’ time, when the experience of South Africa will only have emboldened them.
“It’s crazy. A few weeks ago, we took a trip to Australia in preparation for the World Cup. That was the first time most of these boys had been out of Japan,” said Bedingfield. “Now, here they are in South Africa. They are normally quite reserved, as compared to other teams, but you can see them taking it all in.”
Nigeria on the rise
In contrast to Japan’s silent intensity, Nigeria have been a burst of enthusiasm. A flash of green and gold and with limitless energy, they are learning all the time.
Given the large population of Nigeria from which selectors can draw and the powerful frames of the country’s players, which bring to mind West Indian teams of old, it may be only a matter of time before the West African giant becomes a truly global player.
Their jig and prayers upon sealing passage to the World Cup proper last year was one of the pictures of the cricketing year.
“It’s brilliant to see Nigeria qualifying in the Africa region, and Japan getting through in the East Asia-Pacific region,” said ICC head of events Chris Tetley from Johannesburg. “It’s also very exciting to see countries reaping the benefits of development programmes that they have put in place, with support from the ICC Development Programme,” he added.
It has been a longer road for these smaller nations. Japan undertook a 24-hour trip to get to South Africa, a small hop compared to the leaps their cricket has made. They began their week of build-up to the tournament with a warm-up fixture against Scotland, where the scale of their task over the next few weeks was laid bare. But learn they will.
Similarly, Nigeria have traversed a path that few would have fancied. When they made their way into the Under-19 World Cup, winning in the qualifying tournament in Namibia, they did so by sharing four kit bags among a squad of 15 players.
“It’s a wake-up call for traditional qualifiers like Namibia and Kenya, and a challenge for them to work harder. Nigeria also made it into the final qualifier for the Men’s T20 World Cup last year, so if that is a sign of the development programmes they have established, that is fantastic news,” said Tetley.
Discipline and defiance
Nigeria have spent the past month in South Africa, doing all they can to marry their infectious enthusiasm with discipline and defiance at the crease. They took part in the National Cubs Week tournament held by the junior franchise sides of South African cricket, and that week was uncompromising in its intensity.
For Nigerian cricket to grow, it will need to keep getting tested by those who are ahead of them in the game. They will need to keep visiting southern Africa, which has already provided a lending hand in much of their development.
Part of a tournament group that includes Australia and England, Nigeria certainly have their hands full. But being here is already a massive achievement for a country in which cricket is still not widely played.
“Most of these nations would only play within their geographical region,” said Tetley. “So, for them to come out to South Africa and play in a global event, as 16, 17 and 18-year-old boys, it’s a fantastic life experience and also a sporting experience. They get to test themselves against nations at a similar stage of development, but also against nations that are ahead of them.”
Japan will also have their giant-slaying opportunity, when they meet India in the group stages. There are other associate members ready to rumble, too.
Scotland are highly organised, their cricket programme bearing fruit at all levels. Their senior men’s side is also going to a World Cup this year, the T20 event in Australia, so the example is there for their youngsters.
The UAE have already fired an early shot, taking down New Zealand in a thrilling warm-up match. These tournaments are always bursting with the possibility of the establishment being unsettled, and therein lies the romance.
Tournament ambassador Makhaya Ntini, himself a graduate of the tournament, has encouraged the youngsters to embrace every moment. “I couldn’t even sleep the night before my first game. This is a huge opportunity and I am just looking forward to seeing the next generation showing us what they can do. This is their moment,” he said, beaming.
The likes of Lara, Williamson, Kohli, Ntini and Rabada had no idea where the world would take them when they took part in this tournament. It was a month that changed their lives forever, though, and sharpened their focus towards a massive future in the game.
“If you look back in the history of this tournament, there have been genuine world-class stars who have cut their teeth at this event,” said Tetley. “We don’t know who that is going to be this year, but history tells us that there will be players who make a name for themselves at this event, and then go on to make a name for themselves in the senior game.”
The carrot is there, dangling and ready for someone to seize it – and the moment. Across four venues in Benoni, Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Potchefstroom, young cricketing dreams will take international flight in this World Cup. Who knows what heights they may yet reach.
The ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup takes place in South Africa from 17 January to 9 February.