The Under-19’s Men’s Cricket World Cup is usually relegated to vague opinion pieces regarding who the next big thing will be for the major Test playing nations. Few will forget the cult-hero status achieved by Aussie tweaker Lloyd Pope at the 2018 edition, his mop of red hair almost gaining more attention than his First-class prospects, whilst the tournament routinely sends Indian media into a crystal ball gazing spin about who the future Kohli or Dravid will be.
However, the 2020 edition, which kicks off in South Africa next week, is significant for the broader context of the game a different reason -- it will see first time ‘minnows’ Nigeria and Japan lining up at a major tournament.
The inclusion of the Associate nations is a long celebrated part of the global tournaments, with teams from ‘mystery’ nations often winning the hearts of fans. Indeed, then-Associate nation Afghanistan put in an inspired performance at the 2018 edition and reaching the semi-finals.
However, the qualification of Nigeria and Japan to go toe-to-toe with the world’s blossoming best not only shows the huge playing potential available within the nations -- it offers a huge potential market for the ICC to invest in.
Numbers wise, Japan is home to 126 million people. Whilst only a little over 3,000 people are registered to play, the game is experiencing a significant boost at the grass-roots level, with school children particularly taking a liking to the game similar to the hugely popular baseball.
Historically speaking cricket is embedded in the complicated history of Japan as a nation, with the first game being played on Japanese soil in 1863 between British Merchants and an XI put forward by the British Royal Navy. While the colonial history no doubt hampered the growth of cricket, since the formation of the national team in 1986 cricket has gone from an expat game to one with rapidly building momentum, and given past public engagement with sport in a global tournament in the country, engagement in cricket could be a tinderbox about to explode.
Few would forget the Japanese rugby union team’s shock upset of the Springboks in the 2015 edition of the Rugby World Cup. 4 million people watched the Brave Blossoms deliver a historic last-gasp victory over South Africa. 25 million tuned in for their next match, a comprehensive win over Samoa. Fast-forward to today, and the nation, now having hosted the 2019 tournament and proudly boasting a team in the Super Rugby tournament, had 60 million residents watch their squad take to the field for their quarter final clash against Scotland.
With the nation so actively ready to engage with their national representatives on the world stage, as well as take up the following of a new sport, plus the added comparison to baseball, cricket could well be hitting the sweet spot in the 20’s in Japan, something that could present unprecedented opportunities to the ICC both within Japan and across the broader Asian region.
Nigeria at the U19 tournament offers a similarly exciting prospect for the ICC, with the African nation home to nearly 200 million people and experiencing rapid growth in both interest and ability in the game.
When Zimbabwe were suspended by the ICC for political interference last year the senior men’s team had the chance to test their skills for the first time in a global tournament, lining up for the World T20 Qualifiers in the UAE. While they were unsuccessful in their outings, the exposure for the game was invaluable back home -- something that the U19 team, who won the African qualifiers, including a historic win over Namibia.
With cricket grounds in the nation typically serving as an ugly reminder of its traumatising colonial past, the success of the young reps, as well as their infectious passion for the game, offer a seriously exciting prospect for the growth of cricket in Africa, a continent that boasts a potential engagement of over 1.2 billion people, over the next decade.
Even limited success on a world stage has proven to unlock incredible engagement for cricket. The ICC need only to cast back 20 years to the enormous upswing of popularity cricket experienced with the success of the Bangladesh men’s team in qualifying for the 1999 world cup, and their subsequent upset over eventual finalists Pakistan.
Granted Bangladesh was formerly East Pakistan and they border cricket-mad India, with Sri Lanka not far away. Nigeria and Japan on the other hand, while still near formidable opponents, don’t exist within the same fanatical radius as their sub-continent counterparts.
But perhaps that’s what makes this story all the more remarkable. Few could have predicted that, given Japan and Nigeria’s isolation in a cricketing sense, as well as the administrative and financial challenges faced by both boards, that they would be fielding young, locally born teams to compete on the world stage. Yet here we are. On January 18th Japan will line-up against New Zealand for their clash, whilst Nigeria will turn out against Australia on January 20th. The ball is firmly in the ICC’s court. With the council seemingly committed to isolating the minnow nations in the senior tournaments, the 2020 U19 edition of the World Cup will hopefully be the wake-up call to the opportunity that’s seemingly landed in the global body’s lap. And whatever you do, don’t forget about the incredible Thailand Women’s team coming out for the Women’s T20I World Cup in Australia next month. The 20’s should be the year cricket emerges from its relatively isolated post-colonial shell.
The U19 Cricket World Cup is the best place to start.