Canada cricket takes two steps back
The announcement that Ashish Bagai has resigned as captain of the Canadian cricket team has been greeted with barely a shrug by Canada's cricket community. That is as sure a sign as any that Canadian cricket is in the doldrums. There is no World Cup to work towards. The same people have just been re-elected to the board. The same critics snipe at them. Ontario remains the heartland of Canadian cricket, and yet, apart from the powerful president, key portfolios continue to reside with individuals who are in provinces time zones away from the action. No Test-playing countries will be visiting this year. Same old story.
The 2011 World Cup provided forward momentum for Canadian cricket, which has now stalled and will soon start sliding backwards. Canada's nascent fan base had only just learned that apart from John Davison and Rizwan Cheema there was another Canadian cricketer worth knowing about, and that was the captain, Ashish Bagai. Of course, for those in the know, Bagai was always a central figure, but his exploits were not flashy enough to grab attention the way Cheema or Davison could. To say that Bagai has entered mainstream public consciousness would be stretching things, but through an impressive World Cup campaign he has become known to cricket fans in Canada who only have a passing interest in the Canadian team. And now he's gone as captain.
Two years ago when Bagai put his banking career on hold to concentrate on playing cricket full time and preparing for the World Cup, there was an air of optimism in Canadian cricket. That optimism has faded considerably. Canada put in a just-about par performance at the World Cup, and though Bagai battled valiantly with the bat and kept wicket well, his captaincy was unimaginative. Some senior players grumbled about team selection and their roles, and things were unsettled enough that Canada had six different opening pairs in each of their six matches, with the batting order a patchwork mess.
While Bagai is not a perfect captain, he was and remains the best man for the job. Only one of a small handful of players who is an automatic selection in the side, Bagai has, with his professionalism and performance, earned the respect of everyone in Canadian cricket. More importantly, in a team with many different nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds, Bagai as an Indian-born Canadian-raised captain bridges what could be a tricky divide for anyone else. In his absence there is no automatic choice for the captaincy, which is odd for a team who, before Bagai took the helm, changed captains with a frequency that even Pakistan could ridicule.
Rizwan Cheema, the vice-captain of the team and a highly successful leader at club level, is most likely to take over. Although he had a poor run of form in the World Cup, Cheema is what is known in North American sport as "box office" - no mean feat in a land with no cricket stadium and hence no actual box office. He has rubbed some in Cricket Canada the wrong way, which seems unavoidable for Canada's best players. It shouldn't be a big deal, yet may prove to be a roadblock to his appointment.
Umar Bhatti, the allrounder, would have been a good choice as captain, but he has fallen out with the board and his return to the team is unlikely. Zubin Surkari is also a potential candidate for the captaincy. It would be hard to find a Canadian player more passionate about the team than Surkari. He is a team man, carries himself well, and has the battle scars to prove he is a fighter - whether it's the figurative scars of surviving a run-in with the board that cost him the captaincy in 2008, or the literal ones sustained when he took a full-toss from Shaun Tait in the groin. The major strike against Surkari is that he has yet to turn his dedication and passion into runs, which makes his place in the XI extremely vulnerable. Moreover, with a World Cup berth out of sight for Canada, the emphasis may well turn to Twenty20 cricket, a format that doesn't suit Surkari's game. If Cheema, Bhatti and Surkari are out, this opens up the risk that Cricket Canada will name as captain an unprepared player like Ruvindu Gunasekera or a completely ill-suited one like Jimmy Hansra.
If worrying about finding a new captain, coach and manager (for they have resigned too) were not enough - and in addition no longer having access to the get-out-of-jail card that was John Davison - Cricket Canada now also has to contend with a newly formed organisation that wishes for nothing less than yanking away the very governance of the sport from Cricket Canada.
Many a revolution has sprung from a modest locale, and in that tradition a smattering of actual and would-be cricket administrators from across Canada gathered at a budget hotel outside of downtown Toronto last week to lay the groundwork for an organisation they hope will set Canadian cricket on a new path. The group, which includes Mike Kendall, the president of the largest provincial body, the Ontario Cricket Association (OCA), announced the formation of the Canadian Cricket Federation (CCF). The new organisation makes no bones about the fact that it hopes to supplant Cricket Canada.
The president of Cricket Canada, Ranjit Saini, laughs off the suggestion, and his first reaction is to term the group "The Royal Canadian Air Farce", which is a popular Canadian comedy troupe. It's a good quip, and typical of Saini, who never seems particularly bothered by any challenges that come his way. But while Saini may not see any danger of Cricket Canada losing control of Canadian cricket to the upstarts, to not take what has happened seriously or understand why people felt compelled to take this step, would be a mistake.
Kendall claims that all the decisions coming out of Cricket Canada are based on political considerations, often to the detriment of cricket. He is particularly aggrieved at the expulsion of the OCA from Cricket Canada last year and the swift recognition of another group as the representatives of Ontario cricket. While the OCA has recently inked a sponsorship agreement with Canada's largest bank, RBC, Cricket Canada continues to struggle in attracting corporate Canadian sponsorship. To Kendall this is a sign that the governance of the sport needs to change hands.
Getting the CCF off the ground as a fully functioning organisation is easier said than done, but the group's mission statement lays down the gauntlet, taking aim at all of the things they think Cricket Canada does inadequately or doesn't do at all.
"Canadian Cricket Federation (CCF), a national organisation, committed to develop and excel the game of Cricket to its highest level, by facilitating to build cricket facilities in major cricket centres, by organising coaching and training centres and camps across Canada, by establishing a National Championship geared to identify the first-class cricketers in Canada as well as to become the leaders in hosting national and international events in Canada."
A constitution of the group is due soon, after which will follow the election of an executive. Cricket Canada remains the sole legitimate body for the governance of Canadian cricket, and the notion of any group replacing it and being recognised by the ICC seems far-fetched. Yet stranger things have happened. Before it all goes too far, this may be an opportunity for all sides to start talking again to see if they can play nicely together. Those who control the purse strings are always watching, and cannot be too impressed with the latest developments.
Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures