April 17, 2011

What next for Canada?

Now that they won't get to play the next World Cup, what direction will their development take? And will they continue to receive funding from the ICC?

The ICC's decision to limit the 2015 World Cup to only the Full Members has left the Associates in a pickle. What do they now do with themselves for the next few years? Is there any point in even playing 50-overs cricket anymore? The Associates have, after all, been conditioned to function around the World Cup, in a four-year cycle. First they gear up for World Cup qualification, then having qualified, they spend two years preparing for the World Cup, after which comes the fruit of hard labour - actually getting to play in the World Cup. After which the whole process then starts anew.

Cricket Canada's CEO, Chandra Gocool, says the ICC's decision to do away with a World Cup qualification process has taken him by surprise. "I am very disappointed. It makes me question the credibility of the ICC. We came away from the [CEOs] meeting in February thinking there would be some qualification through the ODI rankings - that maybe the bottom one or two would play in a qualifier." Gocool says that the Associates had even begun thinking whether they should introduce a similar qualification process for lower-ranked Associate teams.

The best of the Associate teams, Ireland, find themselves in the unenviable position of not knowing whether to just push their own case or that of all Associate cricket. For obvious reasons Ireland sees itself in a different bracket than the other Associates. They have already staked claim to Test status, and Cricket Ireland president David Williams has said that the Full Member countries too see a lot of space between Ireland and the rest of the Associates. On the other hand, Ireland has also realised that this is a fight about the principle of excluding the Associates and not just about allowing Ireland to play in the World Cup. It is admirable that they have kept up solidarity with the rest, but the collective case would have been stronger had the likes of Canada and Kenya put up a better show at the World Cup.

Once it was known that the ICC was going to confine the tournament to only 10 teams in 2015, it was clear that the Associates needed to put their best foot forward at this World Cup. Ireland certainly did, and though Netherlands went home winless, they looked a decent side, particularly with the bat. Kenya were by far the worst team in the tournament, but remain the only Associate country to have ever reached a World Cup semi-final. That leaves Canada.

In the final analysis Canada's bowling was respectable. There were patches when it looked up to international standard, and each of Henry Osinde, Khurram Chohan, Harvir Baidwan, Balaji Rao, John Davison and Rizwan Cheema bowled spells to be proud of. Frustratingly, though, they were inconsistent; had they all fired together, Canada's attack would have been a handful for anybody.

Ashish Bagai enhanced his reputation as a quality player and Hiral Patel made a name for himself with a thrillingly audacious fifty against the Australians. Apart from that the batting was largely an eyesore. Jimmy Hansra scored two half-centuries, one of which was a match-winning knock, and the other a self-interested pursuit of a fifty that riled some of his team-mates. Canada's batting was always going to struggle once experienced campaigners Ian Billcliff and Geoff Barnett were excluded. Other talented batsmen like Abdool Samad and Karun Jethi have fallen by the wayside in the recent past, and the team also missed a trick by not selecting the allrounder Umar Bhatti.

Canada were not an embarrassment at the World Cup and improved as the tournament went on. Had Canada selected a stronger team and done away with the appeasement of political forces within its board, things could have turned out even better

While there were a number of players on the team who were extremely fortunate to be picked for the World Cup, the one selection that continues to defy belief is that of 16-year-old Nitish Kumar. It was either a cynical attempt to get into the record books by having the youngest-ever player in a World Cup, or the selectors actually believed that the young man was ready for a World Cup jaunt instead of playing Under-19 cricket or, here's a thought, going to school. Former Canadian captain Sunil Dhaniram is all praise for Kumar but thinks he needed to become a dominant player at youth level before he was selected for the World Cup, "If you dominate in Under-19 cricket, you automatically will get selected for Canada. I would have liked to see Nitish come up that way." Under-19 players who have performed better than Kumar are left to wonder, along with everyone else, how selection works in this country.

Canada have struggled with their batting order for some time and the pattern continued at the World Cup. They had six different opening combinations in six matches, and the rest of the batting order was strange enough that it could have been sequenced better by blindly pulling names out of a hat. The team continued to have superfluous members in its entourage, which did little to dispel the notion raised by critics that Cricket Canada often looks like a holiday service for some people associated with the team. And yet despite all of this Canada were not an embarrassment at the World Cup and improved as the tournament went on. Had they selected a stronger team and done away with the appeasement of political forces within the board, things could have turned out better.

Is there any regret in retrospect at not having selected a different team, knowing that this is going to be the last World Cup for a while? "Not really" says Cricket Canada president Ranjit Saini. "I would always want a couple of young players in a squad of 15 to gain experience, play practice games, familiarise themselves with venues, have nets - whether they play in the XI is another matter. That decision rests with the coach and the captain, and the board does not interfere. With Nitish I will tell you that I do have concerns about his missing school, but the selectors pick him, he wants to play, his family wants him to play, and his school allows him go."

Not only does Saini brush off criticism of the team Canada sent to the World Cup, he believes they had a decent tournament. "I'm saddened by Haroon Lorgat's comments that Canada has fallen behind, because we've made a lot of progress. Because of the ICC decision to exclude the Associates we may now see an impact on our cricket. We sent a young team to the World Cup to motivate young kids at home to show them it was possible to play in a World Cup. This decision takes away the motivation of the kids and the Under-19 team, if the next World Cup that they can hope to play in is eight years away."

Cricket Canada, which relies heavily on the ICC for funds, is concerned about what the exclusion from the World Cup will mean for future funding. The High Performance countries are in the middle of the four-year financial cycle and so funding is not currently affected. The ICC has a funding formula in place that entitles the Associates and Affiliate countries to a slice of the pie. But with the Associates out of the ICC's premier event, the likelihood of the funding formula changing in the near future is very real.

"As much as we appreciate ICC assistance, it comes with strings attached and has to be used for ICC mandated initiatives," says Saini. Also, all High Performance countries get the same amount in US dollars and Saini claims that a strong Canadian dollar means that Canada has lost as much as $200,000 in currency exchange fluctuations. The ICC's High Performance manager, Richard Done was in Canada this week but declined to comment on any possible changes to Associate countries' funding.

While Saini and Gocool are concerned about the impact of the ICC's decision on Canadian cricket, both are still positive about the future. Gocool is focused on infrastructural improvements and thinks Cricket Canada can do better at working with the provincial cricket bodies to identify and groom talent. Saini remains committed to seeing Canada stand on its own feet. "We've got mainstream media interested in cricket now and the attention paid to cricket is growing. If things go to plan, in two or three years we won't need any ICC assistance. We have to look at ourselves and ask what we can do better. There are things we need to focus on at home, strengthening our domestic cricket, improving facilities, raising the standards of umpiring. If doors will be shut on us, we'll just have to open our own doors." That is something everyone in Canadian cricket can agree on.

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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