Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Myanmar cricket struggles for survival

Myanmar cricket is fighting for its future.

“In November the boys trained for four to five hours each day, with no sleep and not enough food”, Myanmar national team duty supervisor U Hla Oo said. “But I worry it’s not enough.”

This week in Thailand, Myanmar is playing in the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy Challenge. With the sport in a delicate state in this country the team realises their performance will have consequences back at home.

“The result of this tournament is very important”, said U Hla Oo in Yangon before the side departed. The squad has been preparing since March this year, with training intensifying the past month.

The Myanmar Cricket Federation (MCF) desperately wants to give the sport a promotional push next year by having the team play in front of a home crowd at the South East Asian Games. However that vision will be in jeopardy without good performances in northern Thailand.

Future funding from the ACC is directly tied to the placing in this competition.

The tournament runs through Thursday December 13 across three venues in Chiang Mai. Seven teams from the third tier of Asian cricket nations are competing. Myanmar has been placed in Group B along with Bahrain, Qatar and China. Group A sees Thailand, Singapore, and Iran jostle.

The top two teams in each group will advance to the semi finals, with the final to be played at Traidhos Oval. But the trip is off to a rough start, Myanmar lost to Qatar by eight wickets after mustering only 54 in its innings on December 7.

This is Myanmar’s third ACC Trophy Challenge tournament. The 2009 and 2010 events saw the team beaten soundly by more experienced nations. The national team is currently ranked 18th in Asia. The coach is a former professional cricketer from Bangladesh, Ashfaq-ul-Islam.

Cricket is an internationally popular sport. Its World Cup enjoys the third largest global television audience after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, according to the Wisden cricket almanac. Players from all over the world are recruited by the Indian Premier League on contracts worth millions of US dollars to play in packed stadiums.

Such is the globalisation of the sport that China has recently embarked on an aggressive programme to develop its domestic scene. The authorities there view cricket as a way of competing for “soft” power with its Asian rival India.

Starting from almost a zero player base in 2004, the Chinese Cricket Association aims to qualify for the World Cup by 2019, according to ESPN CricInfo. China’s first ever international victory came against Myanmar in the 2009 ACC Trophy Challenge.

Despite fever-pitch adoration of the game in neighbouring India and Bangladesh, and the massive investment in China, in Myanmar cricket has struggled for acceptance as anything more than an imperial relic.

British officials played cricket in Myanmar during the colonial era. European teams and even the historic Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) toured the country in the early 20th century.

“[It] was a pre-test tour to India for the most part,” MCC spokesperson Neil Robinson told The Myanmar Times by e-mail of the two matches played in Yangon in 1927. “There don’t seem to have been any actual Burmese playing for Burma or Rangoon Gymkhana. The three non-English players on the national team appear to be Indian Muslims.”

The sport died out after independence, but the last decade has seen an attempted revival. Aside from expatriate activities, the last few years the MCF has been promoting the game throughout Myanmar via schools. This year saw eight boys teams and six girls teams from all over the country participate in youth competitions, said U Hla Oo.

Myanmar was admitted to the ACC in 2005 and the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2006. Last December saw a dedicated ground for the sport constructed at Saw Pong, on the outskirts of Yangon.

The match against China on Monday is a big occasion for the national team. U Hla Oo predicted that is the most realistic chance of Myanmar securing its first ever international win at senior level. He said he was proud that the current team consists of all Myanmar-born players, and that would make any success even sweeter.

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