A great leap forward
With the ICC keen to develop (or exploit) the huge potential market for cricket in China, we will soon get our first chance to see what China can bring to the table as the first ever cricket tournament at the Asian Games starts next week in Guangzhou.
Tournaments for men and women will be played at the new, ICC approved, Guanggong International Cricket Stadium, which will be one of the grounds used in Division Three of the World Cricket League in January.
The performance of China in the men's tournament will be the most intriguing as, due a withdrawal by Singapore, they will come up against a Test playing opponent for the first time. China and Malaysia are the only two teams in Group A, and the winner will play Bangladesh in the quarter finals, whilst the loser will play Pakistan.
The three Asian Test playing teams may be sending weakened squads (India are not sending a team at all), but given China's rather abject performance at the ACC Twenty20 Cup last year, which included a 209 run defeat to the UAE, progress will be shown only by avoiding an absolute mauling. It is a surprise that the organisers didn't restructure the preliminary round after Singapore's withdrawal in order to protect the hosts.
In the women's tournament though, which will take place first, China are real medal contenders. Pakistan are the only Test playing nation taking part, with Sri Lanka and India both absent and Bangladesh not having Test status in women's cricket.
The Chinese women's team are a lot better than their male counterparts, finishing fourth at the ACC Twenty20 Cup in 2009. Pakistan and Bangladesh will be favourites for the gold medal, but any of the other six teams (Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand in addition to the hosts) could well take home the bronze.
The women's tournament is being played under what is, for cricket, a unique format. Using a "double elimination" format, as in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, the first round will be a simple case of needing to win two matches to get to the semi-final, whilst two defeats send you home. The semi-finals take place on 18 November, with the medal matches the following day.
The men's tournament will see the three Test playing nations along with Afghanistan seeded in the quarter finals, whilst the remaining five teams take part in a preliminary round. As already mentioned, Group C consists solely of China and Malaysia, and is essentially a glorified warm-up match, whilst Group D will consist of Hong Kong, Nepal and the Maldives. The winners of that group will play Afghanistan in the quarter finals, with the second placed team coming up against Sri Lanka.
Despite what you may have read in an Associated Press article republished on several websites today, Asia's two WCL Division Two teams, Oman and the UAE, will not be taking part due to the Asian Games eligibility rules that require all competitors to be nationals of the country they are representing. This has not affected Hong Kong, as most of their expatriate contingent have local passports. They have nevertheless opted to field something of a development squad, half of whom are locally born.
Afghanistan will look to upset one of the three full members by winning at least the bronze medal. The captaincy is taken over for this tournament by Mohammad Nabi. Nawroz Mangal remains in the squad, but he was likely to be replaced as captain for this format given his rather formulaic captaincy in the World Twenty20 earlier this year. A newcomer to the side is Mohammad Sami, who came to prominence after smashing two centuries during Afghanistan's recent inter-provincial Twenty20 contest.
Of the other teams, Nepal are unaffected by the eligibility rules and thus have a full strength side. They will be hoping to gain some measure of revenge over Afghanistan after losing to them in the final of the ACC Trophy earlier this year, but haven't been too successful in the shortest form of the game. Malaysia's hopes of a semi-final spot have been hit by the absence of Somerset all-rounder Arul Suppiah. Assuming he is not injured, it would appear that his Malaysian international career is over. Finally, the Maldives will be lucky to avoid a last placed finish.
After the quarter finals, the semi-finals will be played on 25 November, with the medal matches taking place on the following day.
The tournament is of course much more than the cricket itself. China will use it to advertise themselves to the wider cricketing public, whilst the IOC will be looking at the tournament as they decide whether cricket can become an Olympic sport. The earliest that can happen is 2012, and the decision on that will take place in 2013. The ICC, given their acknowledged desire to see China become a major force in the game, will also be keeping a very keen eye on the event.
There is a worry though that this could be a one-off appearance for cricket in the Asian Games. The sports for the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea will be decided the day before these games start, with cricket not being safe. The Korean Cricket Association are worried that they will lose a great change to promote cricket in the country, as the Korean Olympic Committee has little awareness of the sport.
Speaking to CricketEurope recently, Lee Hwayeon, the vice president of the KCA, said "If cricket is featured in the 2014 Asian Games, it will have a huge impact towards the development of cricket in Korea. Korea is a small country but has always done well in summer and winter Olympics. There has not been a chance for Koreans to be aware of cricket and I believe that the 2014 Asian Games is the ultimate chance."
Lee Hwayeon is hoping that cricket will be included in 2014 as it will be a great advert for the game in his country, and the potential to get a top-class cricket facility must not be understated.
Whether this is a one-off or not, two exciting tournaments are about to start in what is cricket's first appearance at a major multi-sports event since the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.