Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Kiwi has mountain to climb in Japan

STUMPED: Cricket high performance manager Chris Ferguson with Mt Fuji in the background. Photo / Supplied
STUMPED: Cricket high performance manager Chris Ferguson with Mt Fuji in the background. Photo / Supplied

Observing players give cover drives a crack in the shadow of Mt Fuji in Japan seems a surreal cricket experience. Yet it is part of New Zealander Chris Ferguson's job description as high performance and pathways manager with the Japan Cricket Association.

Japan is ranked 42 in the world, languishing in the International Cricket Council's division eight - the world governing body's social grade. They are hardly threatening to storm the cricketing world like a modern day Sri Lanka who took just 14 years from their first test to becoming World Cup winners in 1996. However, Ferguson has one of the more daunting roles in the game as he tries to generate participation in a country obsessed with baseball.

Japan has generally been seen as a quirky spot to go for a pre- or post-season tour. The Marylebone Cricket Club were konichiwa-ed in 2009 and there have been visits by the Melbourne Cricket Club and even a Ned Flanders XI from Queensland in recent years.

It is more of a challenge boosting the permanent player stocks to sustain a decent national side. With low junior numbers, Ferguson is tasked with retaining and developing those players. Most Japanese cricketers sample the game for the first time at university.

Ferguson (27) took up his two-year contract at the end of 2010. He is based at the JCA's headquarters in Sano (about 80km north-west of Tokyo) and travels the country including visits to the two pitches at the base of Mt Fuji. He took up his deal after finishing a development role with New Zealand Cricket following the first Christchurch earthquake. Ferguson then faced the aftermath of Japan's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami a year ago which killed 20,000 people.

He says they have tried to use cricket as a positive influence since that catastrophe with the creation of a "Cricket for Smiles" programme.

"We have been donated 250 cricket sets by Dubai-based businessman Shyam Bhatia and the plan is to donate them during monthly visits around the country. We aim to see 20,000 disaster-affected children benefit. My wife Zoe [Ferguson married former NZC communications adviser Zoe George last Monday] will be playing a big part in those visits."

A shortage of playing facilities remains an obstacle. Space is at a premium in Japan but the Sano council has offered some riverside land and a disused high school that could be developed into a high performance centre. The city of 120,000 people now has five permanent synthetic pitches and grounds often shared with other codes.

The ICC has been a help funding Ferguson's cause but their investment is generally in the game's grassroots - an estimated 3000 elementary and junior high school children were introduced to the game in Sano last year. Japan's top players are not paid but Ferguson describes them as a "dedicated bunch". He's attempted to instil structure to the international programme with players required to attend selection camps after he was bemused at the start of his tenure with players touring when they hadn't trained. The ICC pays for the flights, accommodation and food of a coach, manager and 14 players as an incentive to attend tournaments.

"I try to select a majority of Japanese players and a few expats for their playing experience [the local competition's most valuable player last year was Daniel Mee, a New Zealander running a ski school in Nagano]," Ferguson says.

"The Japanese tend to focus on the technical side of things and details. There is no cricket on telly here but, with the internet highly accessible, I encourage them to watch and practise what they see."

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 21 Aug 2014 20:27:28 Processing Time: 1864ms