Friday, February 23, 2024

Canada’s Cricket Comeback: A Path to Professionalism and Popularity

Monica Sethi Darpan, 29 Sep, 2023
  • Canada’s Cricket Comeback: A Path to Professionalism and Popularity

2023 has been a milestone year for Canadian cricket. The sport not only regained the coveted One Day International (ODI) status after more than a decade when the national team finished in fourth place in the World Cup qualifier held in Namibia in April, but Canada also hosted the third edition of Global T20 (GT20) after a three-year hiatus, from July 20 to August 6.

These developments have sparked a fresh interest in the sport as players across the board are beginning to see the potential for a long-term career. While earlier, most players on the Canadian national team viewed themselves as weekend cricketers, the start of GT20 in 2018 and the current ODI status paved the way for national players to have contracts, get more involved, and focus on the game full-time. Cricket Canada, the official governing body for cricket in the country, has offered full-time contracts to 14 players on the national team, which is scheduled to play a minimum of 40 games in the next three years.

Saad Bin Zafar, captain of the Canada Men's National Team, who is happy with his team's performance in recent times, said, "I'm focusing on two goals, first making it to the 2027 World Cup stage and second ensuring Canada becomes one of the top associate countries in the world—and looking at the positive changes taking place, I'm sure we'll make it happen." Canada is one of the eight associate members within the group of 20 countries that possess ODI status. Unlike the top 12 ranked teams, referred to as Full Members, associate members do not have the eligibility to take part in official test matches.

According to Aaron Johnson, another member of the Canadian National Team: "ODI Status and GT20 gave us the opportunity to play with international players which showed us that we can compete with them; but it also gave us the much-needed perspective on what we need to do to survive at this level". He is also pleased that contracted players can now practice 7-8 hours a day, whereas earlier, they would have to balance full-time work and cricket. More positive changes are in the pipeline as funding Cricket Canada receives from ICC will go up in November, which will be spent on the Under-19 Canada Cup every two years, the Men's National Championship, Women's National Championship, and bilateral tournaments going forward. 

GT20's contribution has also been immense, allowing local players to play alongside their heroes. "In 2018, I played with Chris Gayle and Andre Russel for the first time - it was a dream come true. Also, I receive many messages from club cricketers who want to come and bowl to them in the nets. Just seeing these legends play and interacting with them makes such a massive difference to all of us. We learn what it takes to improve the game," shares Saad Bin Zafar. 

Discussing the impact of GT20, the President of Cricket Canada, Rashpal Bajwa, highlights the potential of GT20 to bring tourism into the country besides boosting its global profile. "GT20 was telecasted live in India, Canada, and Australia this year. In all, 4-5 media partners, including CBC and Fox TV, telecasted the tournament," he shares. 

Local Cricket's Surging Popularity

Besides the changes taking place on account of the ODI status and GT20, cricket has also gained momentum locally, with many first-class high-level tournaments taking place at district and provincial levels. For instance, Ontario has Super 9; BC started BC Super League three years ago with six, then eight and now ten teams. There is also BC Big Bash, one of the oldest high-level cricket tournaments, which has been around for the last nine years, a 4-day tournament on Canada Day long weekend. It started with six teams and now has 24 teams competing for a prize of $50,000. In Edmonton, the Champions Cricket Open is in its third year, a 4-day tournament that follows the T20 format and offers a prize money of $100,000. Twenty-eight teams compete, with 4-5 teams from BC, 6-7 teams from Ontario and a few from the US. Players come from all over the world as part of different teams, especially from the Caribbean and the US. 

BC has two leagues, BC Mainland Cricket League (BCMCL) and Victoria District Cricket Association (VDCA), along with several cricket clubs that used to charge people to play. In contrast, now clubs are paying people to play, which shows that cricket is getting commercialized in Canada. Several academies, too, have come up recently, such as Stallions Cricket, which offers practice facilities to players throughout the year. It has played a key role in bringing coaches such as Sarbjeet Singh from India and Babar Javed from Pakistan, who have played internationally. Getting the opportunity to learn from world-class coaches is helping the players gain insights on how they should approach and get better at the game. 

Expanding Cricket's Reach and Infrastructure

In recent years, Canada's cricket scene has experienced a resurgence after hitting a low point following the 2011 Cricket World Cup. This revival can largely be attributed to strategic management decisions and efforts to grow the sport at various levels. Rashpal Bajwa, who has been at the helm of Cricket Canada for four years, has played a pivotal role in this resurgence. One of his significant moves was hiring a full-time coach in 2021, Pubudu Dassanayake, who has been actively involved with the national team, U-19 team, women's national team, and provincial teams. This addition of a dedicated coach has instilled greater confidence among the players.

Transparency has also been a focus, with the coach making the selection process more open and accountable. Additionally, he expanded the search for cricket talent beyond Ontario, scouting for talent in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and other states.

Cricket Canada is looking forward to the Women's World Cup qualifiers in Las Vegas in September 2023 and the T20 World Cup in the West Indies and the United States in June 2024. However, despite the sport's growing popularity, funding remains a challenge. Cricket receives only $100,000 from Sports Canada, a stark contrast to sports like canoeing, which receive $4.5 million annually.

Rashpal Bajwa recognizes the importance of creating cricket heroes and increasing the sport's engagement, particularly among the younger demographic. With many young people not actively following sports, he hopes to make cricket a part of the school curriculum and encourage youth participation. This approach aims to grow the game and provide opportunities for youngsters to view cricket as a viable career option, complete with scholarships and role models.

Amjad Bajwa, Vice President of Cricket Canada, emphasizes the potential of North America as a future cricket market. The introduction of the Major League in the US, with ownership ties to IPL teams in India, indicates the growing interest and investment in North American cricket.

To leverage this potential, Cricket Canada is getting into partnerships with private entities, such as Boundary North, helping them connect with different stakeholders to expand the scope of cricket. For instance, talks are on to expand the Major League to include Canadian teams. It is also focusing on bringing in partners interested in investing in building cricket infrastructure lacking in Canada. While there are a few good cricket grounds, especially in Toronto, no dedicated cricket stadiums exist. "Cricket is growing in the country, and we need better infrastructure if we want local people to come and see the matches; they are also pivotal to attracting sponsors," emphasizes Saad Bin Zafar. According to him, the lack of grounds has even led to turning down clubs interested in joining leagues.

Recognizing that cricket is one of Canada's fastest-growing sports, and there is a growing demand for more space for residents to play, leaders like the Mayor of Brampton, Patrick Brown, are investing in building more cricket grounds. Expanding cricket in schools and introducing shorter formats like T10 are being considered to engage more young players. Ultimately, Rashpal Bajwa's legacy aspiration is to see cricket firmly embedded in the school curriculum. With the game evolving, growing in popularity, and embracing shorter formats, the future of cricket in Canada appears promising.



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