Hoping for a warmer future in icy climes
Newfoundland has perched in fog-bound isolation ever since sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, cutting it off from the Canadian mainland. Until a year ago, it was in cricketing solitude too, as the only province in Canada without a recognised association to promote the game. However, that solitary confinement is over, and this week an artificial pitch has been laid on the Feildian Grounds in St John's, bringing a hard-ball cricket league to the region for the first time in decades.
It's a fantastic step towards rejuvenation, but what happens next is still a bit unclear. How does Cricket Newfoundland (Cricket NL) make sure this isn't just a flash in the pan? Rather fortunately, most of the neighbouring provinces have faced similar battles, and are some way further down the line. Tapping into their experiences and expertise is a sure-fire way of improving our chances of success.
With 750,000 inhabitants, New Brunswick is about 50% more populous than Newfoundland & Labrador. As the only constitutionally bilingual province in Canada, it is also twice as linguistic. And when it comes to cricket, the place has it in its soul. The very name New Brunswick is a corruption of "New Ball! Runs! Wickets!" a battle cry used by English soldiers to confuse their French opponents in the Seven Years' War*.
In the 19th century, cricket was mostly played in the largest city, Saint John, by local clubs and visiting naval teams. Two brothers from Saint John - George and Wallace Jones - played for Canada in the 1880s and '90s, and toured the British Isles in 1887. George scored a half-century against the MCC at Lord's, whilst Wallace went on to captain his country against the Australians in 1893. But as was so often the case in North America, New Brunswick's early cricketing promise yielded to the delights of newer, brasher games.
A revival occurred in the 1960s, and the New Brunswick Cricket Association was founded, hosting matches against teams from Nova Scotia and Quebec. By 1980 the association was part of Cricket Canada, but real growth only began recently. In 2010 Cricket New Brunswick was established, replacing the NBCA and ushering in a completely new committee, led by president Aditya Aggarwal.
"When I arrived in New Brunswick," Aggarwal told me, "the organisation was just about managing to put a team of 11 players on the field. Over the years, having worked with a migrating population, the board did not have many options and were ready for a transition in their outlook on how to attract fresh participants and promote the game."
Based in the capital, Fredericton, Aggarwal and his colleagues now organise a local league as well as provincial tournaments, with players from Canada, India, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, the West Indies and Bangladesh. Longer-term development is key, though, not least by bringing cricket to local schools.
"In 2010, through our schools programme we introduced cricket to around 400 kids between the ages of five and 12," Aggarwal said. "After the schools closed for summer, we ran a holiday programme, the first of its kind in New Brunswick, with 65 kids taking part, and 20 on the waiting list. The same programme is running this year as well, and the numbers have been strong again."
It helps that along with the support of member volunteers, Cricket NB has a coach in Dunu Eliaba, who has played top-level cricket in New Zealand and Australia, as well as captaining the Cook Islands in ICC competitions.
Encouragingly, most of the kids enrolled in the programme are from Canadian families, and Aggarwal thinks that the ethos of the game has a lot to do with it. "The parents like the fact that cricket is a calm sport compared to hockey and football, and has a lot of skill-building aspects to it.
"Since the kids are starting out with the sport, and the rules can get pretty complicated, we set out basic batting, bowling and fielding without going into details. But the kids pick things up quickly and have shown a very good understanding of these basics. The idea is to slowly graduate them to the complicated rules over the years."
Most are more familiar with baseball than cricket, though, and this can lead to a bit of confusion. "I think the funniest thing that I have seen," recalled Aggarwal, "is when the kids were starting out, and instead of running straight between the wickets, they would often run diagonally to get to the base, as they would in baseball. This happened quite often and the other kids on the team would then scream 'Go straight!'.
"And yes they do find the concept of a game that can go on for five days and not produce a result quite bizarre."
While the children of New Brunswick are getting to grips with cricket, the local authorities are still struggling somewhat. "Since NB has a small population base, we have to compete with more popular sports, such as soccer, rugby and ultimate frisby. The authorities consider cricket a sport played only by the immigrant population, and though they do show interest in promoting the game, it is mostly when sold as an immigrant-attracting avenue."
It's similar in Newfoundland. The people pulling the purse strings can perceive cricket as a non-Canadian sport, but they are beginning to recognise its attractiveness to potential immigrants. In particular, the university has noted cricket's appeal to international students paying higher tuition fees, and has shown an interest in promoting the sport. Money talks, as always.
But there has to be a long-term development strategy too, and the one Cricket NB has instigated is a great example. Getting the locals, and especially the local children, interested in cricket is the only guaranteed way to succeed.
"Our vision," said Aggarwal, "is to have cricket being played in the parks and backyards of New Brunswick in the next 10 years. We want as much of the population involved as possible. To me, unless we have locals interested in the sport, the growth that we hope for can never be achieved."
It's a vision that surely everyone with an interest in Canadian cricket will agree with.
*This is, of course, a lie. It was named, rather more prosaically, after Brunswick, the ancestral home of King George III (the mad one).
Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling