The hollow sound of hard leather hitting willow is not one you often hear in China and stumps, wickets and bails are hardly part of the local sporting vernacular. Yet China has still managed to become the most unlikely exporter of cricketing expertise. The US$21 million state-of-the-art Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua that will play host to the Cricket World Cup next year will be designed by Chinese architects and built by 300 Chinese workers. And the sweetest part of the deal for the Caribbean island is that it comes totally free of charge - a gift from its friends in Beijing. The move is part of China's frantic 'stadium diplomacy' that it has used for decades to curry favour with developing nations. During the Cold War years China built scores of stadiums across Africa, as well as parliaments, ministries and railways, in its search for political allies. In recent years, since China has established itself as a sporting superpower and has shown the world it can build spectacular stadiums, the initiative has been given fresh impetus. Just this week Beijing offered to build a 50,000-seater stadium in the Guinean capital Conakry free of charge. With the US$50 million gift on the way, the West African nation hopes to realise its dream of hosting the 2012 African Nations Cup, just as Mali did in 2002 with six Chinese-built stadiums. Several of the African venues have fallen into disrepair. The day China handed over a massive 80,000-seater stadium to what was then known as Zaire 13 years ago the crowd vandalised and looted the venue, taking off with many of the fittings. Adding insult to injury, the stadium was meant to be a present to then President Mobutu Sese Seko on the occasion of his 63rd birthday, but the late dictator didn't bother turning up for the inauguration ceremony. Until recently wild animals used to roam around the 60,000-capacity, Chinese-built stadium in Nairobi that had fallen into disuse after years of neglect. But with Kenya's athletes now complaining about the lack of training facilities as they prepare for the Olympic Games in Beijing, officials decided they should find the funds to spruce the place back up - and China came to the rescue once again. When President Hu Jintao visited Nairobi a few weeks ago he pledged US$7 million to refurbish the 20-year-old stadium. All of this charity comes with strings attached, of course. First and foremost, these countries grant China privileged access to the oil and other natural resources that it so desperately needs to fuel its economic growth. Guinea, for example, is the world's largest exporter of bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminium. The donations are also a carrot that helps China to build political allies, particularly on the Taiwan issue, ensuring most of the poor nations maintain diplomatic relations with Beijing rather than Taiwan. And the support has yielded great benefits on the sporting front too, with no less a prize than the Olympics themselves. Back in 2001, when Beijing was bidding for the 2008 games, the African countries voted as a bloc for China, saying they were backing the nation that had the interests of African athletes in mind. The sporting support goes beyond building venues. In 1957, China started exporting some coaching and managing expertise by sending three coaches to Vietnam. In the following years the coaches they sent to allies were generally from sports that China had traditionally excelled at like table tennis, badminton, martial arts and volleyball. But in recent years, as China has gone shooting up the medal charts, they have widened their remit to include most Olympic sports. To date China has sent more than 2,300 coaches from 28 sports to 113 countries, with most of the coaches sent on long six or eight-year contracts. The projects have quietly extended the tentacles of China's influence beyond the realms of politics and economics. Their latest foray into cricket shows just how far they've gone, and has left the countries who actually play the game scratching their heads and wondering how they let China get the upper hand in a sport that's totally alien to them. In House of Lords this week questions were asked of Britain's policy, for instance. Why was Britain not engaging in similar activities to up its prestige? China's dominance was now accepted in so many fields but surely this was going too far, they said. Lord John Tomlinson, a Labour peer, could only shrug his shoulders and say: 'The experience in some of these countries is that in the battle for hearts and minds, the Chinese certainly appear to be the people's choice.' That's simply not cricket, they might say. But it is the reality.