If on a summer afternoon in Suwon you hear the thwack of wood on leather, don’t assume it’s just another game of baseball.
The field could be round, the bats could be made of willow, and two batsmen could be playing at once. Just be on the lookout for stray balls (red ones, not white) says Korean Cricket Association secretary Owen Wibberley.
“We get a lot of locals who don’t understand the game walking around the field, so you have to tell them that the ball’s very hard, and it’s very dangerous to walk on the pitch when it’s being hit,” he said.
|A batsman is dismissed on the rubber pitch. (Korea Cricket Association)|
Cricket is one of the most popular sports in the world, but its uptake in South Korea has been limited by the supremacy of baseball. Still, the game has been played in the country for as long as Commonwealth nationals have lived here, and the state of cricket in Korea is constantly improving, according to Wibberley.
“There had been expat cricket going on throughout the 1990’s in U.N. compounds through Itaewon, but they began breaking a few too many windows and had to move out of Seoul. We’ve been down in Suwon for 10 years now,” he says.
These days collateral damage is limited by playing Sunday matches at Incheon National University and the Gyeonggi Province campuses of Sunkyunkwan and Suwon universities. Thirteen teams organized into two divisions compete in a round-robin tournament to be crowned the champion of the Korean Cricket Association.
Games are played in the Twenty20 format, which last three hours rather than the five days of a test match. Korea currently has a single dedicated cricket ground under construction in Incheon for the 2014 Asian Games, so pitches are improvised by rolling out a custom synthetic mat on soccer fields.
“The plastic pitch itself is actually quite true,” says Wibberley, who originally hails from England. “I’ve definitely played on worse grass pitches back home.
“The outfield, on the dirt, doesn’t encourage much diving. There are some people who are brave enough, and they usually get up with bloody knees and bloody elbows so it’s not too recommended.”
Although teams were once organized based on the players’ nationalities, nowadays most sides allow anyone to join. Wibberley says that the standard of play among the best teams is “very competitive.”
“(There) are people here who could play grade-A cricket in Australia or England. But then there are also people like me who are passionate, but very much village cricketers at heart.”
When it comes to recruiting locals, Wibberley notes that cricketing skills are very similar to those of baseball. However, the limits on young people’s time and cricket’s unique code of sportsmanship create difficulties in selling it to Koreans.
“It’s something that you grow up with, the social side of the game where you sit down with the opposition afterwards and have a beer and a chat.
“That competitiveness mixed with gentlemanliness is almost unique to cricket as a team sport, so it can be hard to get that message across to local audiences.”
Such difficulties haven’t kept locals away entirely. The league now boasts two entirely Korean squads: the Sungkyunkwan University Team and the Korean National Team. The latter is currently leading the tables, and will compete later this year at the Asian Games.
SKKU bowler Choi Jun-hyuk, who used to play for the national team, told The Korea Herald that his initial curiosity quickly grew into a love for the game’s unique personality.
“Cricket is gentle. I like how there is no contact in matches, and each player respects the umpire,” he said.
Choi found that batting and fielding are easy for baseball players, but says the extended-arm bowling action is cricket’s biggest challenge. However, he managed to pick up the advanced skill of leg-spin bowling by watching YouTube videos of legendary Australian player Shane Warne.
“Cricket has good potential in Korea, because there are so many baseball players here. If cricket can win their minds, then cricket will be successful in Korea.”
Anyone looking to take up the willow can join the “Cricket Korea” group on Facebook. Matches are held on Sundays around Gyeonggi Province, and players of all experience levels are welcome.
By Nick Gowland, Intern Reporter