Chinaman, otherwise known as slow left-arm unorthodox spin, is a genuine term used to describe a bowling style in the gentlemanly sport of cricket.
Unlike Jeff Bridge’s The Dude, I do not have any quarrels with the nomenclature or usage of this terminology. Though I do admit I find the same joke in the comment section in any articles mentioning cricket in the Far East rather old and unoriginal. Cricketing folklore states it stems from Ellis “Puss” Achong, a former West Indian cricketer, and the first documented player of Chinese descent. In the 1933 Old Trafford Test he dismissed the English batsman Walter Robbins with an unorthodox wrist spin delivery bowled from his left hand. Apparently the salty Englishman subsequently quipped “Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman!” and the rest is history so they say. Other famous practitioners of this rare dark art include Garry Sobers, Denis Compton, Paul Adams and most recently, Brad Hogg.
I still find it amusing that I’m one of the few cricket fans (and occasional player) of East Asian heritage and how cricket never really established a fan base amongst East Asians. I was first introduced to the sport in school and though I had never displayed any amplitude in it, I was drawn in by its gameplay, tactics and history. A few years down the line in 2005, England completed their famous Ashes victory thus creating the perfect summer storm of inspiration, sparking interest in a newer and younger generation of fans like myself. Despite not representing the usual demographic, I never felt out of place or alienated whenever I attended a cricket match or rare net session.
Cricket is the second most popular sport worldwide if measured by the number of fans with only football pipping it to the top spot. It has ample fan bases and representation in the UK, the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, the Caribbeans and Oceania. These are all areas with a strong history of colonial British rule and this was how cricket expanded globally during the 18th and 19th century. Therefore it is of no surprise to see the country with perhaps the strongest cricketing history and traditional in the Far East is none other than the former British colony of Hong Kong. Despite not being a powerhouse in the sport, Hong Kong has been hosting the Hong Kong Cricket Sixes tournament since 1992 plus this year saw the inaugural Hong Kong T20 blitz tournament whose participates included the ex-Australian captain Michael Clarke. The country itself has participated in a two full ICC T20 World Cups albeit without much success.
I actually found myself in Hong Kong during the 2016 ICC T20 World Cup in March and thus opted to see the opening match between Hong Kong and Zimbabwe in a random bar in Kennedy Town. It was mostly empty and the only people who seem to be paying any attention to the game were me and two old white guys sitting at the bar. None of the local population seem to be aware or interested in the fact that their national team are currently playing in the opening match of a World Cup. It also occurred to me that there wasn’t a single yellow person of East Asian descent on the pitch representing Hong Kong. A quick internet search states that the majority of the team are either second generation immigrants or expats. Why is this the case?
My theory is cricket is seen as too archaic and niche in the Far East. In a part of the world where national pride and traditions are highly ingrained in their culture, asking them to take up a sport which is associated with British colonialism may seem less than ideal. In addition there is the stereotype of cricket being an “elitist upper-class” sport plus other factors such as the lack of grassroots development and appropriate pitches. Another potential factor is the lack of exposure and representation in global cricket for anyone of East Asian descent. This may deter many youngsters who will naturally try and look up to a role model or hero. This could change in the near future with the slow rise of the Hong Kong off-spinner Li Kai Ming. He made history by being the first cricketer of Chinese descent to sign a professional league contract in the Australian Big Bash League, signing on as a community rookie for the Sydney Sixers in the 2015/16 edition of Big Bash.
The International Cricket Council are not helping matters either with their strange attitudes towards “minnow” cricketing nations and the global expansion of the game. This can be seen in their recent decision to cut down the number of teams in the 2019 World Cup from the already tiny initial number of 14 team to only 10. Bar Hong Kong, other East Asian countries with official cricketing infrastructure and teams include South Korea, China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. So one can clearly see the potential for the expansion of cricket in the Far East. The question remains if these countries can inspire the younger generation to take up the sport and for the general public to take an active interest in supporting and following it.
I believe the biggest obstacle preventing the spread of cricket in East Asia is the mentality possessed by such countries in sticking to traditions and practice. Cricket has minimal history and tradition in East Asia therefore it is easy to see why many dismiss it as a novelty. Nevertheless I do hope within my lifetime we will see the rise of a new cricketing nation in the Far East and increase representation in the sport for those of East Asian descent. For the time being, I will continue following England’s inevitable batting collapses and spraying the occasional off-spinners in the park.