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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Cricket bowls them over in Japan at Asian Games

Japan's women cricket team competing at Incheon, South Korea 150 years after the first game was played on the island.
Women cricketers help make up the contingent at the 2014 Asian Games. Manan Vatsyayana / AFP
Women cricketers help make up the contingent at the 2014 Asian Games. Manan Vatsyayana / AFP

Blood-thirsty samurai warriors once threatened to kill the game of cricket in Japan before a ball had been bowled in anger.

Now the country’s trail-blazing women cricketers boast an Asian Games bronze medal.

Baseball may be Japan’s favourite sport, but cricket goes back further. In 1863, British merchants and naval officers played a tense match in Yokohama, with revolvers tucked in trousers to protect them from assassins with orders to chop off their heads.

More than 150 years later, Japan’s ladies head to the Asian Games in South Korea armed with their secret weapon in Chihiro Sakamoto, a hard-hitting former softball player.

“I had absolutely no idea what cricket was at first,” said Sakamoto, 20. “But I fell in love with cricket from the first day.”

“It is still a bit scary when a bouncer smacks you on the helmet. I bat at No 3, so there’s quite a lot of pressure to score runs. My favourite shot is the pull shot. It’s a bit like a softball shot, so I can really put some welly into it.”

Sakamoto, who made her Japan debut two years ago, is expected to play a key role at the Asian Games but, in true maverick style, has a tendency to throw her wicket away cheaply.

“Chihiro does have a bit of Kevin Pietersen [former England batsman] about her,” said Japan Cricket Association (JCA) chief executive officer Alex Miyaji. “You expect her to go out and make runs – or come back early. She doesn’t mess about.”

Sakamota is as fearless with weapon in hand, as was the Japanese shogun who ordered the slaying of all foreigners who refused to leave the country by June 25, 1863, as political tensions with Britain escalated after the brutal murder of an English merchant.

At a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the Brits tweaked the nose of fear, striding into bat with hidden revolvers and stiff upper lips, guarded by a small force armed with rifles – just in case sword-wielding warriors on horseback suddenly appeared at midwicket.

Fortunately for the gentlemen on the green, the samurai did not stop play and “it is, I suppose, the only match on record in which the players had to be armed”, wrote Admiral Sir Albert Hastings Markham, who took part as a young lieutenant.

Japan’s first cricket club was eventually founded five years later by a Scottish tea merchant.

Japan’s women will have considerably less to worry about at this month’s Asian Games after making an impressive climb since the JCA was formed in 1984, setting up its headquarters 70 kilometres north of Tokyo in the city of Sano, also famous for its ramen noodles.

Japan played World Cup qualifiers in Holland in 2003 and got completely smashed by Ireland, West Indies, Pakistan and Scotland.

“They bowled 50 wides in a match or something ridiculous like that.”

Once a curiosity to rival the Jamaican bobsleigh team, Japan’s female cricketers made significant strides under the tutelage of former New Zealand international Katrina Keenan between 2007 and 2010, culminating in a gold medal at the East Asia-Pacific championship and a surprise bronze at the 2010 Asian Games four years ago.

“Cricket used to be something totally alien to them, but not anymore,” Miyaji said.

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