September 19, 2008

Life beyond Davison

Faraz Sarwat
Five years after Canada made their biggest strides in world cricket they've realised it's homegrown players and expertise that will take them to the next level


Rizwan Cheema could take over Davison's mantle as Canada's barnstorming allrounder © Eddie Norfolk
 

There was a warm glow around Canadian cricket after the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. Expectations had not only been met, but exceeded, with the win against Bangladesh. Sweeter still was the performance of John Davison, whose form with the bat was simply exhilarating. His belligerent 111 against West Indies is now the stuff of legend. If there were such things as cricket posters in Canada, there's no doubt who the poster boy would be. Davison became Canadian cricket.

Fast forward five years and Davison's inability to inspire his team to higher than fifth out of six teams in the World Twenty20 qualifiers is seen by many as a sign of stalled progress. The failure to make it to next year's Twenty20 World Championship is a missed opportunity of the highest order in a country where cricket is said to be the fastest growing sport but where the mainstream media's limited understanding results in the game largely being ignored. A spot in a big tournament would have gone some way in elevating cricket's profile, and more importantly would have attracted more sponsorship dollars.

Looking to the future, Cricket Canada CEO Atul Ahuja feels it is time the country stopped relying solely on imported players. He denies that the 38-year-old Davison is out of favour or that he has played his last match for the country, but stresses that Canadian cricket needs players who actually live there. There is an impact on morale, he says, if the side that has been practising and playing together knows that when a big international match comes around there are spots on the team that will be filled by players who are not part of the day-to-day set-up. It isn't easy for the players flying in either. "It's difficult to come into a team as an outsider, bond with the group and then be expected to perform," Ahuja says. It is clear, though, which side of the argument he thinks is stronger.

Yet the Davison factor is huge. He gave the team instant credibility, and after his 2003 World Cup heroics eclipsed Kenya's Steve Tikolo as the most famous cricketer from an ICC Associate country. Finding another opening batsman of such explosive power, who can also bowl a brace of overs, would have seemed an impossible task for a team like Canada.

Enter Rizwan Cheema. A quick-scoring batsman around the Toronto and District Cricket Association league, Cheema was included in the squad for the tri-series last month against West Indies and Bermuda. His debut went well, with a brisk 34 off 24 balls against Bermuda. Four days later he bettered that, bludgeoning West Indies for 89 runs off 69 balls, with ten boundaries and six sixes. The innings overshadowed his bowling earlier in the day, 3 for 31 in ten overs of medium pace, and in a West Indies score of 303 for 4 in 50 overs at that.

Two days later Cheema clubbed Daren Powell, Jerome Taylor and Co. to the tune of 61 runs off 45 balls. Cheema's performance has given the team a feel-good factor and created positive expectancy among the other players too.

Another player singled out for praise by Ahuja is Dhaniram. "Dhani is extremely disciplined, mentally very strong, an excellent team man and utterly dependable. He knows what it takes to compete." There is no doubt that in a woeful team Dhaniram has been the most consistent performer, fighting day in and day out with both bat and ball. A soft-spoken man, shy to the point of having a fear of speaking in public, he lets his bat do the talking - as in his hard-hit 70 against Ireland in last month's Intercontinental Cup match, an innings he admits was fuelled by being "pissed off at how I had to do everything myself".

Dhaniram has been around Canadian cricket long enough to know what works and what doesn't. "You need the team to feel like a team, to feel connected. You can't have that when people from the outside just come in and take spots in the side, and then just stick to themselves."

With the philosophy of team composition clearer, Cricket Canada is now trying to get the sport out of its weekend/picnic state and to transform it into something more professional. One of the highest priorities is remuneration for the players, allowing for more stability in a team that all too frequently is unable to field its best XI because of players' work commitments.


Once upon a revolution: Davison during his legendary innings against West Indies in the 2003 World Cup. He failed, though, to inspire Canada to a place in the World Twenty20 last year © Reuters
 

Infrastructural improvements remain high on the to-do list as well. There are plans for turf wickets in every part of the country, to curb what Ahuja calls HBS, Horizontal Bat Syndrome. There need to boost the number of coaches in the country who can actually coach on turf wickets is recognised. Developing training facilities that can be used in the winter is a necessity too.

Progress on these fronts will only come with increased funding, which for the most part is still dependent on the ICC. In the past year, however, money has started to trickle in from other sources, notably a three-year sponsorship deal with Scotiabank and, following the official recognition of cricket as a sport by the Canadian government, federal funding, albeit a miniscule amount (less than $200,000 over two years).

Cricket Canada also hopes to tap into the resources of Canadian sports technology and adapt it to cricket with both short- and long-term goals. Istvan Balyi, a Long Term Athlete Development coach who is involved with a number of Canadian sporting bodies, has already begun working with Cricket Canada on age-appropriate scientific sports training that targets both the physical and mental aspects of athlete development. Balyi is not new to cricket, having worked with the ECB, Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa.

While qualifying for the next World Cup is a priority, Cricket Canada also has its sights set on a more intriguing goal: winning the 2012 Under-19 World Cup that will be held in Canada. Having won the Under-15 Americas Championship, Cricket Canada feels that with early player-identification and proper training, an Under-19 World Cup win is a realistic target.

Leaving aside the past year's failures and the seeming regression from 2003, cricket in Canada is entering a new phase of professionalism and goal-oriented progress. The future seems bright as the sport continues to grow - not just via immigration from cricketing countries, but also through a quiet but rapid expansion into Canadian schools and popular consciousness. One hopes that the turmoil is a thing of the past and has merely been a case of two steps back to take three steps forward.

Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures

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