It is rare nowadays to come across a genuine frontier in terms of introducing a new sport to a country that had never seen its type beyond its small expat communities. But on an old racecourse in District 11, Ho Chi Minh City is seeing a birth of a new game in Vietnam; cricket.
Vietnam is preparing to send its first-ever national cricket team to compete internationally, at the 2017 SEA Games in Malaysia in August. Up against the more established sides such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, Vietnam faces a daunting challenge, but that does not seem to faze the players or their volunteer Australian coach, Mick Blinkhoff.
Mick became their coach after watching their practice session four months ago, where he started giving hints and tips from the sidelines. By the end, the players “were begging me to come back.” So, he duly did the next day, and the day after that. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Their cricketing techniques were found wanting,” says Mick. “But these guys were natural athletes and fit.” Thirteen of the 20 players were members of baseball teams before they moved to cricket little over a year ago. The players dedicate five mornings a week to training, on a monthly salary of VND5 million.
Watching the training session on the astroturf, there is little doubting the commitment of the players. Le Hoang Dang is probably the most natural batsman, with a batting stance that would not look out of place on an English or Australian pitch. He is also the captain, with a calmness that rises above the noisy enthusiasm of the rest of the team.
“Cricket is very different from baseball,” he says, referring to his six years as a baseball player for Vietnam. The 25-year-old Dang has clearly taken to his new sport, adding: “I want to carry on playing cricket.”
Dang doesn’t mention that he is set to become a dual sporting international, a remarkable feat by any standards.
To counter their baseball instincts, Mick designed their training sessions to deduct runs if they play the pull shot, encouraging the batsman to keep a straight bat and to try and score runs on the off-side. It’s been a hard but ultimately rewarding journey for the coach and author.
“Practice, practice, practice,” Mick says when I ask him how he drills the techniques into the players. He speaks of two team members in particular. Their opening batsman, Kim Hoang Dung, learned from operating the bowling machine.
“He was watching the batsmen and how they hit the ball,” says Mick, his expression betraying an element of surprise when recalling the moment Dung batted for the first time three weeks ago. He is now one of the established opening batsmen for Vietnam.
Another was a spin bowler who struggled in the first few months but then managed to bowl a perfect delivery a few weeks ago under the tutelage of Mick, and has grown in confidence ever since. A useful cricketer in his native Australia, Mick embodies the mantra of “practice makes perfect.”
“It’s hot as hell here, we don’t have the equipment, the funds or the cricket upbringing,” Mick continues. “But Vietnamese are proud people and have a never-say-die attitude.”
There is one more challenge that faces this team — playing on a proper grass pitch. They have done all their training on astroturf, without all the variables of a natural cricket pitch. But if the commitment of Nguyen Viet Lai, who travels 140km daily from Binh Duong, is anything to go by, then this team will be no walkover come the SEA Games in August.
Photos by Bao Zoan