Old movie stars bring cricket to Myanmar GenX

Published: Friday, September 2, 2005, 23:53 [IST]
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Yangon:At 65, Nyunt Win still enjoys celebrity in Myanmar won in his younger years as an action movie star. Now he and a handful of other ageing actors are hoping to use their fame to revive their glory days, not on a movie set but on a cricket pitch.

The veteran star began playing cricket when he was nine years old, as the country then known as Burma had just achieved its independence from Britain. He captained a university team in the capital Yangon and the memories of those days have fueled his desire to revive a sport that is hugely popular in neighboring South Asian nations, but has practically disappeared here.

"We have to try to pass along our knowledge to the next generation. Neighboring countries have improved in cricket, and I believe that we too could have a good team one day," Nyunt Win told AFP.

Along with a few fellow movie stars, Nyunt Win this year convinced the military government to allow him to form the Myanmar Cricket Federation.

The junta, which keeps a tight lid on all organizations in the country, had resisted previous efforts to promote the sport, which for many people smacks of elitism and the country's colonial past.

Cricket was introduced in Myanmar after the British colonized the country more than a century ago, and many here still associate it with the invaders.

But while the sport has flourished in other former South Asia colonies -- with India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh fielding international teams at the highest level -- cricket never became more than a pastime for a tiny minority in Burma.

Very few know how to play, and cricket matches are a rarity in the capital.

"Our people have never been interested in it, not only because they think it's a bourgeois sport. They also feel it's unpatriotic, because they associate cricket with the colonizers," Nyunt Win explained.

"But now our beliefs are changing, and we think that sport is sport. We want to try our best to compete internationally."

The efforts of Nyunt Win, who has been playing cricket with his old showbiz friends to publicise the game, seem to be paying off.

In June, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) accepted Myanmar as an associate member, which brought some international expertise and financing for the fledgling group here, and in mid-August the federation finished training its first group in a new generation of coachs.

"I hadn't even heard of cricket a year ago," said Hla Myo Kyaw, a 23-year-old university student who is among the first batch of new coaches.

An aspiring actor who's not especially athletic, Hla Myo Kyaw was inspired to take up the sport by Nyunt Win's enthusiasm.

"I don't think it's an elitist sport. Anyone can play. The main thing is how much you're interested in it," he said. "I also want to keep practicing and play in international games to promote our sport."

Building interest in the game will take time, its advocates admit.

"We need much assistance. But I believe we'll succeed because we can do a lot with what we have," said Shwe Zin Hteik, a film actress who is now secretary general of the cricket federation. Unlike major cricketing nations, the game is played by mixed sex teams in Myanmar.

"I dream of playing with neighboring countries, maybe next year," she said confidently.

"Our cricket coaches are not certified as a profession. We are weak in technical training and funding. But I am happy that ACC are going to pay assistance for our country in the future," she said.

Nyunt Win said the federation had teamed up with schools to encourage young people to take up the sport.

"We have gotten some school teachers to join our coaching class. The teachers can help us grab the students' attention and encourage the sport," he said.

While Shwe Zin Hteik and Nyunt Win dream of new cricket pitches attracting new fans, sports buffs weren't so sure.

"I've never hear of anyone playing cricket in Myanmar, but we should welcome a new sport," one sports watcher said.

A documentary filmmaker, who like many people here prefers not to have his name in print, said he had once seen kids playing cricket in the streets of Yangon.

"One evening, I saw some amateur cricketers playing in the street downtown. Of course they had no equipment, but they were trying their best with what they could find," he said. "They used sticks as the bats, and they didn't have any uniforms."

Thinking the young cricketers would make a good subject for a documentary, he went looking for them later.

"But when I went back there the next weekend, I couldn't find them. Anyway, I'll keep looking," he said.

Aung Aung, a 26-year-old football fan, said he was willing to give cricket a chance, but that what little he's seen of the sport was bewildering.

"I've watched some games on satellite, but I couldn't understand how they were playing or what the rules were. I prefer to watch football," he said.

"If Myanmar promotes the sport, I would watch. But I don't think it will attract people more than football matches," he added.

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