JAKARTA - From a small core of foreign fanatics who cajoled everyone around them to play, cricket has blossomed in Indonesia and administrators dream of one day rivalling the Asian superpowers.
Despite its proximity to cricket-mad Australia, the mainly Muslim country of 234 million people was a stranger to the sport until the early 1990s when a handful of expatriates started their own league.
"Because the expatriates needed more people to make their teams of 11 players, they asked locals to join. It turned out that some of the locals were excellent players," said Cricket Indonesia chairman Sachin Gopalan.
"It used to be only social games played by expatriates. But it has changed." The foreigners formed associations in Jakarta and the holiday island of Bali, which culminated in the formation of Cricket Indonesia eight years ago.
In the past two years the number of players has tripled from fewer than 10000 to 30000 according to administrators.
One of the pioneers was Australian veterinarian Bruce Christie, who is credited with planting the seeds of cricket in the poor eastern province of East Nusa Tenggara in the mid-1990s.
"I had to keep my 11-year-old son amused," said Christie. "So we started playing cricket and invited about 20 to 30 local people of mixed ages to play."
The first games were held on local soccer fields and sometimes a tennis court, he said.
The locals picked up the game pretty quickly as they'd played 'kasti' (a local bat-and-ball game) before and they were good at throwing stones at birds or whatever. I also had videos and books to show them," Christie said.
Gopalan and Vijaykumar are from India, where the "gentleman's game" verges on religion and fans can watch it 24 hours a day on dedicated pay-TV channels.
They admit the support base for cricket in Indonesia is relatively tiny, dwarfed by the locals' love of badminton and soccer. Indonesia's sports council does not even recognise the game as an official sport.
But the International Cricket Council - the game's governing body - made Indonesia an affiliate member in 2001 and another milestone will come in July when Indonesia hosts an international under-15 tournament involving eight countries from the East Asia-Pacific region.
Local junior player Rizky Tri Rubbi, 16, who led his team to a quarter-final against Singapore at the 2007 U-15 regional club tournament in Malaysia, said cricket was a game of mental strength as much as physical talent.
"The expatriates have been very helpful. I learned from them that cricket is 90% mental and 10% skills," said the diminutive batsman who idolises Indian great Sachin Tendulkar.
Rubbi picked up the cricket bug in Australia where he attended school for seven years while his parents studied at an Australian university.
"When I started to play in Indonesia after I returned from Australia I had to play with many expatriates. I had no problem with them being foreigners but the age difference was overwhelming," he said.
Rubbi was confident Indonesia could have a competitive national side in 10 years, regardless of whether the government decides to give it support.
"I don't mean to offend our soccer team, but Indonesia has a bad level of achievement in soccer despite a lot of government attention," he said. - Sapa-AFP