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Mainland China cricket on sticky wicket

BEIJING--White-clad Chinese cricketers roared as a homegrown bowler sent the bails flying in Beijing — to the unfamiliar clatter of leather on plastic.

The national universities' tournament, the country's top competition, was held on an Astroturf baseball field in the capital, where the pitcher's mound had been removed, the stumps were made of plastic and the boundary marked out by orange discs.

It was a sign of the lack of government support for the non-Olympic sport in China, where only around two dozen homegrown teams play regular competitive matches and a few foreigners are trying to drive it forward.

Across the Himalayas, cricket-obsessed India are top of the world rankings in one-day internationals. But despite an even larger population, China are listed last but two in Asia, ahead of only Myanmar and tiny Brunei.

“When I got here, everyone was holding the bat like it was baseball,” said Rashid Khan, the former Pakistani international who now coaches China's national team, one of the few spectators at the university event.

“Now they can play good cricket,” he added, as players hooked balls towards the baseball netting. “The bowlers at least are bowling with a decent action.”

The first recorded cricket match in China was played in 1858 between a team of officers from the British navy's HMS Highflyer and a side from Shanghai.

But while the British Empire spread the game to Australia, South Asia and the Caribbean among others — its former territory Hong Kong recently qualified for next year's World Twenty20 in Bangladesh — mainland China resisted complete colonization and the sport never caught on.

Now a wave of sports governing bodies from American football to rugby at pushing their wares in China, hoping to secure a slice of its vast market after basketball and soccer won tens of millions of fans in recent decades.

The Malaysian-based Asian Cricket Council funds the national team, and Briton Matt Smith, who coaches at a university in the northeastern rustbelt city of Shenyang, said: “We've begun to build a cricket culture.”

There are expatriate sides in China's major cities, but according to the state-backed Chinese Cricket Association (CCA) the vast country has only 68 homegrown teams, in schools and universities.

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This file photo taken on Nov. 22, 2010 shows Li Jian of China being clean bowled off by Pakistani ball during the men's cricket quarterfinal at the 16th Asian Games in ...

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