China now has a term for cricket: shen shi yun dong, or "the noble game". But how long will it be before the country's players can bowl a chinaman with the best of them?
The MCC, which arrives on Tuesday for its first tour of world's most populous country, is about to find out. A team led by the Kent and England spinner Min Patel will play in Beijing and Shanghai as well as Hong Kong, although there is still no purpose-built cricket ground outside the former British colony.
The Chinese sporting authorities are said to have identified cricket as a sport where they could compete on equal terms with England and Australia, unlike those, such as rugby, that depend more on physique. "It's a game that requires good hand-eye co-ordination, much like table tennis or badminton, and Chinese people are good at those games," said Calvin Leung, marketing director of the Chinese Cricket Association (CCA).
International cricketing authorities are salivating at the thought of the money a close Test series between India and China, representing more than a third of humanity, could bring in. "I see the game's revenues jumping by 30 per cent after China starts playing seriously," said Syed Ashraful Huq, chief executive of the Asian Cricket Council.
He was in Beijing on a fact-finding mission last week with the chief executive of the International Cricket Council, Malcolm Speed, and Shaharyar Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. They gave the CCA $400,000 (£210,000) to help development.
The first recorded cricket match in China was played in Shanghai in 1858, but until recently it was a game only for expatriates. Only 64 schools and universities have taken up the sport so far, but the CCA, founded in 2004, has set itself a target of 15,000 players by 2009 and 150,000 by 2020. A junior team will compete in the ACC Cup in Thailand in December.
The CCA's strategy is to sell cricket to young Chinese as a posh pastime. The proper Chinese phrase for cricket is ban qiu, literally "bat ball", but the sport's administrators prefer the "noble game" tag.
"We want people to know it's an upmarket game," said Mr Leung. "We explain that it was originally played by noble people in England. People in China like the idea of playing a game for gentlemen."Reuse content