Until the 2003 Cricket World Cup, Canada hadn’t been a ‘real’ cricketing nation. They’d been nothing more than the answer to a rather tragic piece of cricket trivia:
What’s the oldest international cricket fixture? Canada vs the USA, in 1844.
That 1844 match, which Canada won by 23 runs, could quite easily have its “international” veracity disputed. It was in effect an inter-club match, with the two clubs coming from two nations.
Nonetheless, it kicked off cricket in the Americas. The hard work done by George A. Barber – “the father of Canadian cricket” – was paying off.
Whilst Canadian cricket didn’t kick on in the same way it did in pre-Civil War Philadelphia, the English influence in the northern nation made sure the game stayed alive with a strength that allowed regular matches and tours to take place.
1979 was the nation’s first World Cup, following an impressive ICC Trophy display. From there, they didn’t make another World Cup until 2003. In that tournament, they managed their first ODI victory, defeating Bangladesh in an astounding performance.
2003 also saw John Davison hit the then-fastest World Cup 100, on the way to giving the West Indians a fair fright. It was the peak for the team; the culmination of many years’ development.
2007 saw three admirable performances, and 2011 saw them send Ashish Bagai and John Davison off in style, with several solid games and a victory over Kenya.
Since then, however, the game has been in decline. In 2014, Canada finished sixth – out of six – in the 2015 World Cup qualifiers. It demoted them to Division Two of the World Cricket League, held earlier this year.
They again came last, losing the fifth place playoff to Uganda. It means Canada now sit in Division Three of the World Cricket League.
To most, it would seem that the glory days of Canadian cricket are over. But despite the doom and gloom emanating from elsewhere, current skipper Jimmy Hansra remains positive.
To the question of whether Canada can again rise to the heights of 2003, Hansra has no issue in saying yes.
“That’s a very easy answer. Definitely from the very heart I believe it can happen.”
There are many factors at play within Canadian cricket, and often the reason for failure is more difficult to pinpoint with Associate nations than Full Members.
And it is complex; a lack of matches, a lack of exposure, an inability to play cricket fulltime, a reliance on expats. All impact in varying degrees on most or all Associates.
It’s the issue of expatriates which concerns most people more than any other with Canada. A brief (and highly unscientific) poll I conducted threw up the strong suggestion that an overreliance on expats is Canada’s biggest problem.
But Hansra thinks otherwise. I mentioned the matter of expats, especially in the wake of their fifth-place playoff against Uganda in the World Cricket League, where just two of the eleven players were born in Canada.
“Although you see a lot of people that are not born in Canada … all have learnt their cricket in Canada. Even though they weren’t born here, they moved here at such an early age – at the age of five, six, seven – that they really started playing their cricket through the system of Canada.”
He wanted to make the point clear; that players weren’t learning their game overseas, and then migrating, but instead learning their game within Canadian borders.
And that is a distinct difference to note. The Netherlands have been plagued by brilliant players who move to Holland for cricketing purposes, as an avenue into County cricket, or the world stage. Conversely, with the exception of John Davison (who was born in Canada, but learned his cricket in Australia), Canada have developed their own talent in recent years. There aren’t any more Anderson Cummins’ playing!
Foreign-born players happen all around the world; BJ Watling, Neil Wagner, Dean Brownlie, Ish Sodhi and Luke Ronchi have all recently played for New Zealand, and all are either born overseas or have significant overseas history.
Hansra himself was born in India, and he discussed how grew up with the Canadian system. He moved to Canada aged 14, and worked his way to the top.
“I started my cricket here in Canada, and I’ve learned my cricket through the local system that the volunteers have put together, and I’ve reached the highest level.”
Addressing how to continue developing home-grown talent, Hansra pinpoints awareness of the game as the key factor.
“We are, specifically, introducing cricket into schools, getting a lot of youngsters at the age of eight, to ten, to twelve playing the game now and being aware of it. It all comes down to the awareness of the game in different Associate countries. And we’re definitely doing our best to get the locals involved.”
As Hansra mentioned, he’s learned his cricket in Canada, and worked his way up to the top job – captain. In that role, he’s following in illustrious footsteps. He captained the Canadians in the qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup, whilst Ashish Bagai and John Davison had been the captains in the 2011 and 2007 tournaments respectively.
It’s a daunting position to follow those two, and the first time he took the job on – in 2011 – he stepped down after a matter of months. This was because of his batting form:
“When I gave it back, I wasn’t ready as a player to take on a leadership role.”
He came back in time for those World Cup qualifiers, in a new situation with dual-captaincy. He continues leading the one-day side, but Rizwan Cheema will be in charge of the Twenty20 team. Hansra says this is to bring them in line with most of the rest of the world; most national sides have split captaincies these days.
It does also show, however, how hard it is to replace players of the calibre of Bagai and Davison. Those two had been head-and-shoulders above the rest, and their entitlement to leadership could rarely be challenged.
I asked him how difficult it was to replace those kind of players.
“…Definitely big shoes to fill, and having a lot of senior players of that calibre leaving at the same time – Balaji Rao, Ashish Bagai, John Davison, Ian Billcliff – that have had the seniority and the leadership roles, you’re now having a younger generation trying to take over. And we’ve had a period of being off the track, and now we’re slowly getting our juniors enough experience to get back on track and have them building for the next few years.”
But getting the youngsters that experience is tough for an Associate nation; especially one without the proximity to county cricket of Ireland or Scotland.
One of the big issues is that step up from Canadian domestic level, to world standard. Canada spent three seasons in the Caribbean T20 before being omitted since 2012. How can Canada replicate that kind of standard?
“It was a great experience for us, to play against the West Indian players. We have our local leagues who are doing that, local events that are that are creating T20 leagues across the provinces in Canada. That’s an initiative that has been taken, and has been successful. But it is a big gap to play cricket in Canada to play with the local league players, and comparing that to the international level. In a short answer, no that’s not enough. So we have to reach out to countries like England and the West Indies. West Indies are our neighbours, the closest ones to us, so they’d be ideal for our players to go train with, and create some kind of partnership. Whether that’s playing in the local divisions, in the 50-over league, in the two-day league, it’s about getting the opportunities for the youngsters to play at a high level.”
He mentioned the facilities, especially the lack of turf wickets, as a big problem for Canada (as well as the weather!), and something that has to be sorted. “But we are definitely doing our best to incorporate that as much as possible in our local cricket here.”
Of course, the lack of full-time cricketers particularly hurt. That’s something we’ve seen most strongly with the UAE – in the World Cup their captain stated before their final match that they were looking forward to going home, because they needed to get back to work.
“Yeah, that is one of the major roadblocks for most Associates…It’s a challenge working and training on the side for huge competitions. I am a big believer that Associate players – whether it’s Ireland, or Canada, or anyone else – they have to try play a lot harder, and devote a lot more time to the game of cricket, than the Full Member nations do.”
He referred to the admirable performances of the Associates during the recent World Cup – we all remember Ireland beating the West Indies, Afghanistan scaring Sri Lanka, Scotland and the UAE giving everyone a good fight.
“The gap is going down… I’m really proud of the way Associates performed in the World Cup.”
But obviously not all about the World Cup is rosy. With the ICC wanting to bring the competition down to ten teams, Associates will miss out – for all the ICC’s rhetoric of how Ireland and Afghanistan could yet qualify, let’s be honest. They won’t.
“Having Associates playing in the World Cup, at a top level, is really, really important for us. For those youngsters playing in Canada, looking up to the fact that ‘one day I’ll be playing in the World Cup’, that’s really the driver for all the sacrifices that one makes as a cricketer. And if that gets taken away, then that’s a big part that’s missing. Because money is the one thing that isn’t there, it’s all about playing for our passion for the game.”
Hansra believes that the discussion going on around the world, from the everyday cricket supporter, is what will help keep their World Cup hopes alive. “We’re really hoping things like what you’re doing here today, and discussion around the globe, will help make the ICC understand that, and respect the fact that, Associates are part of the world and should be playing in the World Cup.”
The ICC’s ten-team World Cup hurts all Associate nations. William Porterfield’s comments after Ireland’s last game of the 2015 World Cup – “If you cut World Cups from the agenda, then what’s the point really in us keeping going?” – summed up the mood of the situation.
It would be a real blow to the cricket ‘world’ if some of the most passionate and dedicated cricketers were wiped off the face of the earth. And it’s a bizarre diversion from the norm. Football and Rugby Union are expanding their World Cups, not contracting them. Why on earth is cricket going backwards?
It’s clear that Hansra believes the same as the majority of people I know – that Associates should be in the World Cup. But what else does he believe the ICC should be doing for the Associates?
“More scheduling of games.”
He also speaks of the other issues: not enough tournaments, not enough funding (especially for the younger players), not enough opportunity for Associate nations to show off their abilities.
“That would definitely be helpful from the ICC, to help fund nations like Canada, to help us provide those tournaments for players on a regular basis, to help players train and travel, especially overseas to help them improve.”
Canada, now in Division Three of the World Cricket League, are facing one of two situations. It’s either the transition from one generation to another – something that impacts on all nations (look at Australia of a few years ago), but which always impacts most heavily on Associates.
The other option is that there are serious underlying problems within Canadian cricket. Hansra is the man in the best position to say which it is, and his conviction on the matter is strong.
“No, I think you have it right with the first one. There’s a gap between the generations, and we’re just trying to get a balance between the senior players and the youngsters.”
He outlined a plan for the side: trying to solidify a team line up, and from there performing in the local T20 division, qualifying for the T20 World Cup, performing in the World Cricket League Division Three tournament, and generally attempting to “build some momentum” for the side. And youngsters, he regularly says, are key.
He’s right that the younger generation is coming through, with the likes of Yug Rao, Nikhil Dutta, and Nitish Kumar all coming through and shining. The former two made their names at the Under-19 World Cup last year, whilst Nitish Kumar, at 20, has already been playing One Day International cricket for five years. Are those young players coming through capable of performing on the world stage?
“I think so. I think regular cricket is important, I think that’s what lacking for Associate teams.”
It’s something that he clearly sees a huge issue for Canada, that lack of regular high-level cricket.
“In that group of youngsters, I see that hunger and that disappointment in their eyes when things aren’t done, and that’s always a good sign. And I’m really hoping that in the next few years that we can turn things around and be at the top in Division One.”
Overall, it’s evident that Jimmy Hansra sees a bright future for his Canadian team. Despite recent setbacks, and the difficulty of adjusting to life after Ashish Bagai, there are positives there.
As long as the players continue to develop and show that hunger that Hansra speaks of, Canadian cricket will build and improve in the coming months and years.
Division Three might be a significant distance from the top flight, but it’s just as easily to rise back up as it is to fall flat.
As long as the ICC keep alive that World Cup dream, and as long as the Associate nations continue to be given the opportunity to expand and rise, there’s no reason why Canada can’t reach the top of the Associate world again.
Come 2019, if the ten-team theory is abandoned, we could well see a Canadian appearance in a World Cup again. Let’s hope we do.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks go to Jimmy Hansra for his time in speaking to Mind the Windows! about the future of Canadian cricket. It is a privilege to have their current captain speaking so forthrightly and openly to us.]