Updated: October 4, 2020 7:47:59 pm
Approximately an hour and 30 minutes away by train from central Seoul is the Yeonhui cricket ground in Incheon, South Korea’s only cricket stadium. Winter is around the corner and South Asian immigrants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are making the most of a cold day in October to play the season’s last few matches in the 2019 Korea Cup T20 League.
Till a decade ago, cricket was an unknown sport in South Korea, and it remains unfamiliar for many in the country. What cricket is for South Asian countries, baseball and football is for South Korea. But over the past three decades, it has been slowly making inroads here, largely due to South Asian immigrants who have worked tirelessly to create space for their communities to play the game.
As recently as 2013, South Korea did not have an official cricket ground. That changed when Incheon city was scheduled to host the Asian Games in 2014 and cricket was among the eight non-Olympic sports to be played. “There was no pitch as such before that. We used plastic; a synthetic pitch to play,” recalls Nasir Khan, vice-chairman of the Korea Cricket Association (KCA), and coach of the Korean national men’s and women’s cricket teams. The Asian Games resulted in South Korea getting its first and only cricket ground, with the Incheon city government and the country’s sports authority stepping in to fund it.
Khan is among the few people to have witnessed the evolution of cricket in South Korea since 1993, when he immigrated from Lahore, Pakistan. Like other South Asian immigrants who relocate to South Korea, Khan remembers searching for community clubs in the country where he could play cricket, just like he would in his hometown.
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“There was a community club for British expats with eight teams and the British embassy was also involved,” says Khan. “I joined the cricket club called Broughton XI, I think. I’ve even forgotten the name of the club, its such an old memory.” Later, he helped create another local cricket team with Pakistani nationals living in Seoul, calling it the ‘Pakistani Eagles’.
The formative years
Domestic league matches are ongoing at the Yeonhui cricket ground and Khan looks out on the field to check in. “The Pakistani team playing right now was previously called ‘Pakistani Eagles’. Earlier we used to play in Itaewon in the (Yongsan garrison) army base. It’s not open to civilians but we had special permission to go and play on Sundays,” Khan says of the large US military base in Seoul. “We must have last played there in 1996. Now we have our own ground.”
In the 1990s, Khan says there were eight local cricket teams, comprising students, businessmen and workers employed in various professions from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Australia. Sometime in 1998, the cricket teams stopped playing in the Yongsan garrison and took to holding their matches on the grounds of a nearby elementary school in the neighbourhood of Seobinggo.
In 2001, the Korea Cricket Association (KCA) became affiliated with the International Cricket Council, and a team composed mostly of expats was sent to Perth the following year to play in the ICC East Asia Pacific 8’s Tournament, their first international tournament. Despite the KCA’s affiliation with the ICC, it was then managed largely by immigrants with no oversight from any Korean government body.
Over the next five years, cricket in Korea witnessed a brief hiatus, in part because of the KCA’s informal structure and administration. “All these were voluntary positions and people had to give extra time to cricket,” says Eddie Rimmington, an Australian market research consultant who played league cricket in South Korea for eight years before moving back home. “Many expats relocated or their responsibilities increased, or they just moved on to other things in life. So no official matches happened in the mid-2000s and people just played cricket in their own communities.”
Cricket got an unexpected boost sometime in 2006, when a faculty member teaching physical education at Sungkyunkwan University petitioned the institution to include the sport as an elective subject. “So the students who took these classes formed the basis of the cricket team that went on to play in league matches under the name ‘Sungkyunkwan Dragons’,” says Rimmington. “A majority of them were Korean nationals who had studied in Australia or England and had learned about cricket there.”
Satyanshu Srivastava, Assistant Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Korean Studies, who studied in Korea for six years, remembers how Sungkyunkwan University students would help by booking university grounds so that others could come to play cricket. “Every fourth Sunday, we would book the grounds.”
With no proper grounds for cricket at that time, the teams only had access to a flicx pitch — a portable, roll-out artificial pitch — that they would spread out each time they played, Rimmington recalls. It was at this time that the KCA decided to give the sport some semblance of formality by announcing the registration of cricket clubs composed of expats, a move that was possible in part because of funding from ICC’s global development fund.
“The fee for registration was $300 and this amount was used to train the Korean national cricket team. Only a nominal amount went into planning tournaments, buying uniforms, kits and paying for tournaments,” says Srivastava. “So expats have contributed a lot to the development of cricket in Korea.”
These were still the formative years of cricket in the country, and a collection of these funds, in addition to ICC’s financial support, allowed the cricket-playing community to buy a few kits and helmets that were shared among six registered teams. “These were kept in the Sungkyunkwan grounds and we didn’t even have (individual) kits at that time,” says Maidul Islam, Assistant Professor at Keimyung University and a member of the Indians in Korea Cricket Club (IIKCC).
Teaching Koreans cricket
“I organised the first tennis ball cricket tournament in 2010,” Srivastava says of his time at Seoul National University. “Leather ball cricket can be a risk, so although not officially used, tennis ball cricket was very popular and people enjoyed it more.”
Easy accessibility to tennis balls in South Korea and the ease of playing with it helped spread its use to other university campuses that had students from cricket-playing nations. These groups in turn introduced tennis ball cricket to their Korean friends.
Cricket has always been more than a sport in South Korea for South Asian communities; it has also provided opportunities to connect with the diaspora in a land so far from home. “In 2010-11, it was hard to find Indian food in South Korea,” Srivastava recalls. “Some would bring food from home and sell it for 5,000 won (approximately $5) per plate. When we had matches in Sungkyunkwan University, many players who owned (South Asian) restaurants would cater samosas, biryani etc. Even the Koreans would eat it.”
While immigrants were playing the sport locally, in 2010, the KCA began putting together the first national cricket team, comprising mostly former college athletes who had played baseball or other sports. According to a 2013 documentary by Korean government news outlet Arirang TV, despite having been formed to represent South Korea internationally, the national team struggled to find sponsors and logistical assistance due to a lack of government support for an unfamiliar sport.
Still, the national team and their coaches persevered and travelled to Samoa to compete in the 2011 ICC East Asia Pacific Trophy Division 2. Here they made their international debut and won their first ever match.
By 2013, prompted by the prospect of the Asian Games the following year, the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee officially recognised the KCA, introducing several changes in the administration. But there was still no proper cricket ground in the country or even a training facility. With the international games around the corner, preparations were accelerated for infrastructure and training.
Learning from the best
One of the many changes involved the building of the first cricket ground in South Korea in Incheon. “The Incheon city government invited me to help them create it,” says Khan who accompanied a team that travelled to Bangladesh and Australia to understand what they would need to establish South Korea’s first ground. “We went to Sydney and Dhaka to learn more. An Australian company came here to design the pitch. The main stadium in Incheon was also built by them in a joint venture with Hyundai.”
For reasons that were not immediately clear, the first generation of South Korean cricketers who were a part of the national team had disbanded by the time the Asian Games were scheduled to be held. A new team of players had to be picked from scratch and the KCA began recruiting athletes from local colleges who would be able to pick up cricket relatively quickly.
Learning the rules of the game was just the start; next came understanding the specifics of posture, movement and a level of physical fitness to which they were unaccustomed. So the national team was sent to Chandigarh in India to train under the best coaches that South Korea could find. This trip included watching a Kings XI Punjab match at Mohali stadium, the first time the national team had ever watched a professional cricket match in person, and a meeting with Adam Gilchrist.
Lee Sang-wook, 34, a former member of the South Korean national cricket team that played in the Asian Games, recalls the uphill battle that the sport has faced in the country. “When I first started cricket, the most difficult part was the training environment and cricket equipment. There were no cricket stadiums in Korea, and there was no fine cricket equipment. So I practiced at a baseball stadium or a small indoor gym with poor and torn equipment.”
“It is very hard to explain to people who don’t know about cricket…I always explain it by comparing it to baseball because it is one of the most popular sports in Korea,” says Lee. “And then, I sometimes show cricket videos.”
At the Asian Games, the national team reached the quarter-finals but were defeated by Sri Lanka. “After the games, the Olympic body in Korea wanted to demolish the Yeonhui cricket ground because Koreans don’t play cricket and it was a waste of money to maintain it,” says Islam. “So the KCA asked all the local teams to write a petition to keep it.”
It wasn’t only the KCA’s petitions that worked. It so happened that the South Korean women’s national team was better than the men’s, making the case that the women needed space to practise. “(The women) came from different backgrounds. Some were taekwondo players, some marathon runners. They had never played cricket and we trained them for the Asian Games in the winters in the basement for six months so that they could understand the game,” Khan recalls.
The national teams improved their skills over the years. More recently, the men’s national team participated in the 2018–19 ICC T20 World Cup East Asia-Pacific Qualifier in the Philippines and came second.
While members of the men’s national team during the Asian Games were all South Korean citizens, the KCC now follows ICC rules where players don’t have to be Korean nationals to qualify, increasing the possibility of recruiting foreigners with stronger cricket skills. “If a player is living in Korea for three years, play a certain amount of league (matches), and check a few other qualifications, they qualify for the team,” says Khan.
In 2018, the KCA had put up a training camp of 25 people from which seven to eight men were selected for the national team, of which half were Korean and the other half were Pakistani, Bangladeshi and South African. “One Indian was selected as well, but according to ICC rules, he was disqualified because he didn’t have the required number of years of residency. You have to stay in Korea for at least 10 months a year and if you don’t have the required number of months, you have to say why. You (also) have to play at least three matches out five played in our leagues. These are ICC qualification rules.”
A South Asian-led sport
Over the past few years, there have been fewer teams of ANZAC and British players in South Korea, Rimmington says. “From 2015 onwards, the ANZAC teams began dissolving. But it’s always been a very South Asian-focussed league.” The reason may just be linked to the professions of South Asians who call South Korea home.
While many from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka come on long-term visas for contractual employment, Indians come for higher education, research and employment that requires them to stay for a few years. Many have also settled down here, and have married South Koreans and started families. That hasn’t been the case for most ANZAC players or those from other countries, Rimmington believes.
Even within the South Asian community, it’s the Sri Lankans and Pakistanis who have really invested in the sport, says Tumul Srivastava, an Indian who has lived in Seoul for a decade. “The Sri Lankan and Pakistani community here are mostly made up of men who work day and night in factories, but on the weekends, they’ll collect the entire community to play cricket,” says the 38-year-old travel agency owner.
“You can see the Pakistani community and Sri Lankan community here. Not everyone plays cricket but they have come here to enjoy the sport today. They live as one in this country,” he says. This feeling of community is missing among Indians, he believes, because few have really settled in South Korea. “Some are here for work or education and they are so engrossed in their personal lives that they don’t really have time for cricket.”
The match on the field is on its last leg, heating up between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and the spectators’ cheers can be heard from outside the stadium. Periodically, the IPL’s 2011 music tune can be heard in short bursts. The ambience is reminiscent of that in South Asia, only here on a much smaller scale, one akin to that of a family outing.
In the section of the grounds where Sri Lankan supporters are sitting, drums are being played to cheer on their players, with people dancing in their seats. Nearby, a wok full of hot kottu, a Sri Lankan dish of roti, vegetables and meat, is being prepared and sold in small plates.
“It’s a harsh life, but we come here and feel like we’re in our own country. The stress is gone,” says Amal D’Silva, 45, a steel welder from Sri Lanka. “Some people have come here taking a five-hour bus ride. But they’ve come to celebrate and enjoy. We meet in small groups off and on, but here, it’s like a real celebration.”
Standing nearby is his friend Malin Bandare, who helps manage the nine-year old Sri Lankan team when he gets time off from his food export business. “Today is a holiday. But tomorrow we start working, just like machines. Today we’re happy,” he says. “If we get a little time, we try to get happiness. You have to get happiness where you can get it,” he adds after a pause.
Pakistan has won the match, and supporters of both teams flood the grounds cheering, waving their national flags. “It’s okay,” D’Silva smiles.
Khan rushes around, arranging trophies and certificates, helped by Korean cricket players just before the awards ceremony begins. The cricket season has ended for the year. Come November, it starts becoming freezing cold in South Korea and matches can restart only once summer arrives.
Dusk is falling on Yeonhui and families are wrapping up to head home, a journey that will take several hours for some. For many South Asian immigrants in South Korea, cricket not only provides a sense of community and belonging, but also respite from the mechanical lives that many live. But for those like D’Silva who haven’t been able to travel back, it’s also a connection to home.
Lee believes that today cricket has become more challenging to play for the South Korean national team than it was a decade ago, essentially due to administrative roadblocks. “After…the Asian Games, the Korean Olympic Committee and the government cut the budget and they are now unable to (play).”
According to Khan, both the national men’s and women’s national cricket teams were dissolved earlier this year, in part due to a lack of adequate funding. The last time the national cricket teams represented South Korea internationally were in 2018, with plans to participate in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in 2020 in India, but that got postponed due to Covid-19. But for now, South Asian immigrants are keeping cricket alive in South Korea, one match at a time.
Reporting for this story was undertaken in Incheon, South Korea in October 2019.
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