Breaking new ground: Cricket slowly finding its feet in baseball-crazy Japan
Japan's rugby team's head coach Eddie Jones (C) hits a ball with a cricket bat as he takes a team training session at Warwick School in central England, on September 25, 2015, during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Getty Images

Known as the land of rising sun, Japan had no connection with cricket till some time back. The people in East Asian nation followed baseball the most. There was absolutely no interest for cricket, but this was only till some time back. Things have changed considerably in recent times and now the game of cricket is slowly gaining popularity in the country, with the captain of its national team saying “our dream” is to make it to the qualifying rounds of the World Cup.

Cricket has taken rapid strides in the country which is now home to an estimated 3,000 players and 200 teams. The idea of Japan participating in a major international tournament, which seemed improbable few years ago, may become a reality soon. In November, the Sano ground – the first dedicated cricket pitch in Japan to meet international standards – will host Japan, China, South Korea and the Chinese Dragons from Hong Kong in the first ever East Asia Cup. ALSO READ: Japan rugby coach flaunts his cricket skills.

This has become possible largely due to the efforts taken by Naoki Alex Miyaji, chief executive of the Japan Cricket Association (JCA). “The gap in ability in international tournaments used to be huge. We didn’t have what it took to build an innings. If we batted first we were lucky to make it through to lunch,” Miyaji, 37, was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

Miyaji, born to a Scottish mother, fell in love with cricket during childhood summer holidays spent in the UK, before taking it up at Keio university in Tokyo and going on to make his debut for Japan in 2000. His return to the country of his birth proved to be the turning point in revolution of the game in Japan, where local authorities, who were desperate to arrest population decline and bring more visitors to the area, agreed to support his plans to turn Sano into Japan’s first “cricket town”, which triggered the rapid evolution of cricket in the country.

Japan’s cricketing roots stretch back to 1863, when British merchants and Royal Navy officers played a friendly match on a grassless patch of land in Yokohama. But the real change happened by the formation of the national team in 1986, which proved the catalyst for a dramatic improvement in the game’s fortunes in a country where many people still confuse cricket with croquet. In 2000, the national team reached a milestone of sorts when they scored 100 runs for the first time in a 50- over match.

Japan, an associate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), now has players in almost all age-groups, including women and university students, in every region of the country. Kanto, where Sano is located, is considered the sport’s spiritual home, with five pitches and plans for the international ground to host 180 matches by the end of the year.

Coaches from Australia visiting several times a year to teach children of all ages has become a commonplace thing now. “This is a renewal phase for the Japanese team,” says Chris Thurgate, an Australian and a board member of the Japan cricket association. “There’s genuine competition for places in the national team now that we’ve expanded the player base and there are more junior players coming through,” Thurgate adds.