August 14, 2009

Bagai on board

Canada's best player has swapped life as a banker for a cricket contract

It is the bane of ICC Associate cricket that for various reasons countries often struggle to field their best eleven players. Canada has suffered from this malaise for years. Some of its best players used to be oceans away, in Australia, New Zealand and England, only sporadically coming together to play if the cricket on offer was important or attractive enough to justify taking time off from the concerns of earning a livelihood. That still remains the case for some, but significantly, Canada has managed to entice its captain into signing a contract from now through to the 2011 World Cup. Ashish Bagai is finally home and he couldn't be happier. "This is a dream come true to finally be able to play cricket for a living. It's something I've wanted for as long as I can remember".

Bagai began playing the game as a child while in school in India. At age 11 he moved to Canada with his family, and by the time he was 15 he was playing representative cricket in Canada. He duly made it to the under-19 team before graduating to the senior side. His debut ODI remains his favourite match - Canada's upset win over Bangladesh in the 2003 World Cup.

While still in university, Bagai continued to play for Canada, but sometimes his studies prevented him from participating in overseas tournaments, a trend that continued when he began work in the banking industry after graduation. While Bagai was happy with his job, he was disappointed at missing important tournaments like the 2005 World Cup Qualifiers and, most recently, the four-nation Twenty20 tournament that Canada hosted last year. It is an uncomfortable choice, which most players on the team have had to make from time to time - balancing the demands of earning a living while trying to play cricket at a high level.

For Bagai, being pulled in two different directions was no longer acceptable and a decision had to be made between choosing to devote himself to his banking career in the UK or focusing on cricket in Canada. His parents helped, reviewing the pros and cons of his options, and Bagai appears satisfied that cricket won out. "I enjoyed my career at UBS in London and was doing relatively well. It is difficult to give that up, but I'm taking a chance on something that hasn't been tried before. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start the era of professionalising cricket in Canada and building a team that can have an impact at the World Cup."

Though Canadian cricket has become accustomed to life with only fleeting glimpses of Bagai, his worth to the team is immense. A versatile wicketkeeper-batsman, and still only 27 years old, he has scored more ODI runs for Canada than anyone else. He makes the team for his glovework alone, freeing up a spot for an additional batsman, which every Associate team desires due to long tails and a shortage of allrounders.

At the moment, considering he is available year-round, and with a view to the 2011 World Cup, it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Bagai leading Canada. Intelligent and thoughtful, with a good sense of the frailties of the local cricket scene, he is the country's most experienced international. A product of the system rather than an overseas import, he can relate to the newer players as well as he can to the more experienced campaigners like the former captain Sunil Dhaniram.

Cricket Canada is over the moon to finally have a commitment from their captain. Six players had already signed contracts by the end of June, but a deal with Bagai was not formalised until August 1 due to compensation issues. It is clear that Cricket Canada is relieved to have not lost Bagai to his career outside cricket. While all concerned are loath to discuss the financial aspects of the contracts, there is no doubt that Bagai's banking career was a more lucrative proposition than playing cricket in Canada. He is philosophical, though: "Years ago I had promised myself that if the opportunity ever came up to play cricket for a living, I would take it. That opportunity has arrived."

It is clear that Cricket Canada is relieved to have not lost Bagai to his career outside cricket. While all concerned are loath to discuss the financial aspects of the contracts, there is no doubt that Bagai's banking career was a more lucrative proposition than playing cricket in Canada

In Canada there is little understanding of what it really means for national cricketers to have signed contracts. The game does not make money. There is no television revenue or income from gate receipts. Sponsorship is still nascent and the bulk of the funding continues to come from the ICC. For other streams of revenue to emerge, Canada has to become a better team and a more attractive commodity for sponsors. Having a core group of players and a settled captain to work with will go some way in achieving that, by building a team rather than a ragtag collection of players.

Bagai has admitted there have been times in the past when he has gone into tournaments without having met some of his players. Though he downplays the impact of such uncertainty, the results on the field have sometimes been gruesome, with unsure body language and no team chemistry. Thirty-odd players took the field for Canada last year, which, coupled with the constant captaincy changes made the side look decidedly amateurish. National team coach Pubudu Dassanayake in an interview to Cricinfo, expressed his own frustrations that came from not having a set group of players at his disposal. With Bagai and the likes of Rizwan Cheema and Dhaniram sewn up, there is now reason for optimism where consistency is concerned.

Lack of consistent cricket because of work commitments meant that Bagai himself was often rusty when he would join the team after months away. He's now looking forward to better days with the bat. "My purple-patch was during the World Cricket League in Kenya in 2007 (Bagai was the Man of the Tournament, scoring 345 runs at 86.25), and that only came as a result of spending six months in South Africa at the academy, focused on cricket. I feel that I have more to offer than what I've been doing for the past couple of years. That's why I've come back to cricket full-time."

Bagai however is clear that being a contracted player does not guarantee selection for anyone, including himself. And while representing his country remains uppermost in all his talk about what the contracts mean to him, the former investment banker is not naïve about the financial incentives. "As a captain, I wanted to see match fees given more weight in the contracts. It places real importance on every player getting fit and ready for every game, otherwise they won't get picked or paid. It means players taking care of themselves. It ensures that players are working towards playing games for Canada and doing well for Canada."

The road to the game becoming professional in Canada is a long one, but the first steps have been taken. Importantly, the right man is leading the way.

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