As a neighbour to India and Bangladesh, it was only a matter of time before cricket gained a foothold in Myanmar
By Jack Goodman
Search the back streets of Yangon or Mandalay for smiling youngsters playing cricket and you’ll be disappointed. Ask around Myanmar’s teashops about the gentleman’s game and you will likely be met with an amused shake of the head. Therefore, when the news surfaced in January that cricket would not be included in December’s Southeast Asian Games – hosted by Myanmar – it did not come as a surprise.
“We heard on January 29. They [the team] were very disappointed. The government said the team and organisation needs to improve,” said Myanmar’s national coach, Ashfaq Ul-Islam, while standing on the freshly laid wicket of the new national cricket stadium at Saw Pong, on the eastern outskirts of Yangon.
Despite the SEA Games setback, Ul-Islam feels that cricket “has prospects in this country if it is looked after”.
Unlike many ex-British colonies, where cricket has often become an indelible part of the sporting and cultural landscape, in Myanmar the sport only gained official recognition in the past decade when the Myanmar Cricket Federation joined the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) in 2005, and was admitted to the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2006.
Recently, local cricket was given a big boost when the only club cricket league in Myanmar was won by Yangon United. It was the first time the league has been won by a ‘locals only’ team, rather than one made up of foreigners – usually Indian expats or overseas businessmen.
“This is because the players who started in 2005/2006 under the [ACC] development programme are getting better now,” said Ul-Islam. “Now they are improving, they are mature enough. My expectation is that in the future they will keep on winning.”
As we walk around the boundary to the nets by the stadium’s pavilion, about 30 boys and girls ranging from eight to 16 years old are bowling in the nets or ‘shadowing’ a forward defensive shot.
Ul-Islam is employed by the ACC to coach the Myanmar team and manage the development programme, which began in 2005, and aims to install cricket in the country for good. He is a man with some sporting pedigree – a graduate of the prestigious Bangladesh Institute of Sport and a coach in Bangladesh for four years. It was his generation that helped turn Bangladesh into the successful test-playing nation it is today.
As part of the ACC’s goal to develop cricket across Asia, the development programme has funded Myanmar cricket in its entirety using money earned from tournaments involving the Asian test-playing nations: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
“Myanmar has had nothing to invest, only the ACC. I’m not authorised to say the exact amount, but [there has been] some for governance, some for women’s cricket, some for coach assistance,” said Ul-Islam. Test-playing ACC nations also send free equipment that cannot be made in Myanmar, such as cricket bats or pads.
The most visible manifestation of the programme – described as “the major step” – is the building of the new ground. The facilities are simple, but there is a pavilion and a professional outfield and square. “When it is finished, players will be able to play in proper facilities, so that is very important,” said Ul-Islam.
With an official home and player participation on the rise across the country, the next important stage for cricket is cooperation from the government. According to Ul-Islam, this is beginning to happen.
While the funds from the ACC used to be slightly clandestine in nature – “Perhaps without the government’s full awarenes,” according to Ul-Islam – the government is now giving support to the development programme. The new quasi-civilian government is welcoming investment from the ACC and giving them the space and authority to proceed. Cricket even enjoys an unusual amount of independence in Myanmar and is so far untainted by the former military regime.
“The government is ready to welcome cricket and the government has promised to follow the directions of the ACC,” said Ul-Islam. “I have met with government ministers twice and have discussed future development with the deputy sports minister. It’s a good sign.”
Independent of government support, the game faces many challenges, none greater than competing with football for the nation’s affections. Fortunately, like football, cricket should benefit from the relative ease and low cost of playing.
“Cricket is a sport with huge potential to expand in many countries, not just those with a cricketing heritage,” said Tim Anderson, global development officer of the ICC. “It is a sport that is available to all, and it can be played almost anywhere. Basically all that’s needed is a stick and a ball. In ICC member countries such as Papua New Guinea and Afghanistan, grass roots cricket participation is expanding significantly, and one of the main reasons for this is because it’s such an accessible and fun sport.”
Anyone with access to a map can understand why the international cricket authorities are so interested: Myanmar’s geographic location smacks of potential.
“There are approximately 4,000 people already playing cricket in Myanmar,” said Anderson. “Myanmar shares borders with India and Bangladesh, two countries where cricket is extremely popular, and therefore we see no reason why this love for cricket can’t continue to expand.”
Having two powerhouses of international cricket as neighbours will have benefits if the sport gains traction in Myanmar. Experienced cricketers from India and Bangladesh are likely to come to Myanmar to conduct skills training. Furthermore, according to Ul-Islam, entering cricket as a professional in any capacity – education, umpiring, coaching, playing, marketing, advertising – could be lucrative.
Modern cricket, particularly in the Indian Premier League, is a multi-million dollar industry, with all the glitz and glamour of any international sport. By developing the game locally, Myanmar has a better chance than many to feed off cricket’s growing wealth and role in world sport. For a country like Myanmar, so isolated for so long, cricket could also be a unique way of forming new diplomatic relationships with Bangladesh and India.
While some big strides have been made in recent years, Myanmar remains brittle, divided and poor, which makes it all the more important for stabilising influences such as organised sport to gain momentum. Ul-Islam sees the situation as both a personal test and a unique opportunity for a nation on the rise.
“It’s a huge challenge, leaving a test-playing country and coming to a novice cricketing country,” he said. “My challenge was, let’s see if I can use my development experience [from Bangladesh] in Myanmar or not… In general, sport [can be] a medium to make a generation civilised. You can grow your younger generation in a positive way through sports, and not just cricket.
“They will be away from indecent things, and at the same time they will be [learning about] competitiveness and how to live their lives professionally. Sport can offer a profession. In this country, cricket has huge prospects and it can be the players’ future.”
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