Japan's cricketers bowled over by Dubai hospitality

Did you know? Japan not only have a cricket team, but they have also qualified for the Under-19 Asia Cup in Dubai

by

Rituraj Borkakoty

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Japan captain Koji Hardgrave Abe (left) and off-spinner Shotaro Hiratsuka at the G Force Cricket Academy ground in Dubai. — Photos by Rituraj Borkakoty
Japan captain Koji Hardgrave Abe (left) and off-spinner Shotaro Hiratsuka at the G Force Cricket Academy ground in Dubai. — Photos by Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Fri 8 Dec 2023, 12:08 AM

Last updated: Fri 8 Dec 2023, 8:03 AM

It was freezing cold in Tokyo on Tuesday night when Japan’s under-19 cricket team boarded the flight for a 12-hour journey to Dubai.

These aspiring cricketers from the baseball-loving country were itching to get a few hits in warmer weather ahead of the Under 19 Asia Cup (December 8-17) in Dubai.

But what warmed their hearts was the warmth of Dubai’s G Force Cricket Academy head coach, Gopal Jasapara, and Shyam Bhatia, a well-known cricket enthusiast, who went out of their way to offer their training facilities for free.

Barely a couple of hours after checking into their hotel following the long flight from Tokyo, the Japanese cricket team hit the ground running at the G Force Cricket Academy facilities in Al Jaddaf, Dubai.

Ardene Ruhode, a former Zimbabwean first-class cricketer who is now the head coach of this under-19 Japan team, was lost for words.

“We cannot thank them enough. This is the most ideal thing for us, just getting off the plane and having people ready to help us with anything,” Ruhode told the Khaleej Times as his wards started taking some high catches.

Gopal Jasapara (second left) and Shyam Bhatia (fourth right) with players and the coaching staff of the Japan Under 19 team
Gopal Jasapara (second left) and Shyam Bhatia (fourth right) with players and the coaching staff of the Japan Under 19 team

Ruhode says his team rarely gets to practice in proper cricket facilities back home as the sport is still at a nascent stage in Japan.

“The boys are really grateful and they are just seeing a nice pitch and outfield. These boys don’t get to see many turf wickets back home in Japan. But with people like Bhatia and Gopal, it’s a different story for us,” he said.

“Bhatia has also done a lot for grassroots cricket in Japan. He is one of the good servants of the game. So we are really grateful and we hope to get continued support going forward.”

Head coach Ardene Ruhode
Head coach Ardene Ruhode

Bhatia, the 81-year-old cricket aficionado who has attended every 50 overs World Cup since 1975, even rushed to the ground on Wednesday to wish them luck for the Asia Cup in Dubai.

“I am over the moon. Seeing them here for the Asia Cup makes me so happy,” said Bhatia who was honoured by the ICC (International Cricket Council) recently at the World Cup in India for his tireless efforts to promote the game globally.

Koji Hardgrave Abe, Japan’s under-19 team captain whose father is from New Zealand, also doffed his hat to Bhatia and Jasapara.

“It’s an awesome gesture from them. It’s an absolute pleasure to train on these facilities and to bat on these wickets. These wickets are awesome. We are all very thankful,” Abe said.

A Japanese bowler bowls at the nets
A Japanese bowler bowls at the nets
A batsman plays a front-foot shot
A batsman plays a front-foot shot

Baby steps

While admitting that cricket has a long way to go in Japan, Abe said there has been some impressive progress, thanks to the efforts of the Japan Cricket Association and the cricket culture that players with mixed heritage are bringing to the country.

“I am half-Japanese because my mother is from Japan. But I have been living in New Zealand since I was three and that’s where I fell in love with cricket,” said Abe who grew up idolising Kane Williamson.

“Six of us in this team are half-Japanese. It’s definitely helping the team. I am from New Zealand, four boys are half-Australians and half-Japanese. Another boy (Tomo Rear) is half-English. It helps a lot.

“These boys know the competitive nature of the game. It also gives the Japanese boys a great chance to learn. It’s a great team culture.”

The number three batter says the Asia Cup, where they have been clubbed with Test-playing teams Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and hosts UAE in Group B, will be a great learning experience.

“Not much expectations from us, but as a group we would be learning a lot from this tournament,” he said.

“But when we have our moments, we would want to capitalise on it. If we are in a winning position, we don’t want to let it slip.”

Keep rising

It’s hard to keep rising above the challenges when cricket is often treated as footnotes in Japanese media.

But head coach Ruhode is confident that the game will eventually gain a foothold in Japan.

“Look, football and baseball are the biggest sports in Japan. But we seem to be doing pretty well at the moment, especially at the grassroots level. There is a lot to look forward to,” he said.

Tomo Rear, whose father is English, is one of the six players with mixed heritage in the team.
Tomo Rear, whose father is English, is one of the six players with mixed heritage in the team.

“We have some promising players in this team, there is Shotaro Hiratsuka who bowls off-spin, he also bats very well in the middle-order. Captain Abe is a very good batter. Then Chihaya Arakawa is a very good wicketkeeper-batsman.”

The talent pool is not really big, but Ruhode says there is a growing number of Japanese kids that play cricket now.

“Six of our players have mixed heritage. They are overseas-based players. But the core of our team is Japanese. That’s because more and more Japanese kids have started to play cricket,” he said.

“And now it’s a big thing for us to qualify for this Asia Cup — the next big thing will be to win a few matches and try to compete with the best teams.

“This Asia Cup is hopefully the start of many successes going forward.”

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