Cricket's glory days in Nova Scotia
In three years of reporting on cricket in Atlantic Canada, I have been somewhat remiss. Though my attentions have always been centred on Newfoundland, I've written pieces about New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and even an international club in Quebec.
I have never, however, written anything about the region's top cricketing province: Nova Scotia. With the season having drawn to a close, I can't permit this any longer, for 2012 was the year that the cricketers of Nova Scotia won pretty much everything.
Cricket has a long history in the province, thanks not least to the strategic importance of its capital, Halifax. As the largest ice-free natural harbour in the northern hemisphere, the city was vital to British Atlantic interests in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Allied ones in the 20th.
Large numbers of cricket-playing military men found themselves stationed in Halifax, and the sport became extremely popular. This culminated in a three-way tournament, held in 1874, with Canada taking on the British Officers and Philadelphia. It was a success, and off the back of it, a "Halifax Cup" was competed for in Philadelphia from 1880 till 1926.
Cricket died back somewhat in the mid-20th century, but in 1967 the Nova Scotia Cricket Association (NSCA) was established and it set about revitalising the sport. Current honorary board member Bhan Deonarine has been involved for most of that time, as treasurer, secretary, provincial director or president, and slowly but surely he has helped oversee a revival in cricketing fortunes.
Consequently, if anyone thought Nova Scotia's glory years were a century or more behind them, the last few seasons have knocked that notion on the head. Two thousand and twelve was a year of unprecedented triumphs. The NSCA provincial team won the Maritimes 40-over championship, the Atlantic Twenty20 Cup, and saw two of its players - Harikrishnan Raghuraman and Shreyas Dhond - gain national recognition.
"It's been fantastic," says NSCA vice-president Matt Lane. "Our success on the field has helped create awareness of the sport locally, but also lets people know that we have a good deal of talent in our ranks. We've a long way to go to be consistently competitive with the traditional powerhouses of Canadian cricket, but we certainly have an ever-improving pool of players."
Raghuraman and Dhond are two of those players, and their performances saw both get invited to play in the Ontario Premier League T20. They were then chosen to represent the Eastern Fury in the inaugural National Cricket League, a tournament that NSCA provincial director Amit Joshi was in charge of overseeing.
"It was a wonderful experience to be the tournament director and be responsible for planning the NCL," Joshi recalls. "It was a ten-day tournament, and the first time that the top players from across the country had been picked to participate. Nova Scotia players getting a chance to compete with national team cricketers is something we were all excited about; it has helped our guys realise that although NSCA may be small, we are not lacking in talent."
The NCL comprised five teams - the Pacific Edge, Western Stallions, Prairie Fire, Central Shield, and Eastern Fury - and began with a 50-over tournament, won by the Stallions. The Fury lost their only 50-over game, and the T20 competition that followed was bedevilled by poor weather, but Joshi remained upbeat.
"The NCL is good for Canadian cricket," he says. "As it gets more exposure on local and national TV channels, more people will notice. The players who participated will bring back the high-performance cricket culture to our region. This can become a pathway for them to aim for the national team."
NSCA president Tushar Sehgal agrees. "Cricket being on TV, word of mouth, and winter indoor cricket have all helped in generating interest in Nova Scotia, as well as encouraging people to come out and try the sport. We need to now translate the success of our teams into youth development."
Improved playing facilities have also made a big difference. "Perhaps the biggest plus for the association this year," says Lane, "was that we were able to upgrade our home pitch at the Commons in Halifax. This has contributed remarkably to raising the standard of play in the Halifax Cricket League."
The league has only been in existence for three years, but Lane, Joshi and Sehgal all agree that it has been the catalyst behind Nova Scotia's marked improvement.
"We saw the need for a competitive league in Halifax," says Joshi. "It has generated a lot of participation, resulting in increased numbers of players every year, and now these teams have become a brand of their own, with friendly rivalry increasing the quality of the cricket."
"We also enforced equal opportunity rules to ensure that, regardless of skill level, all members got a chance to play," adds Sehgal. "The board assigned all teams a manager who is responsible for making sure this happens. All players in all teams play a similar number of matches across the season.
"This is a tricky task," Sehgal continues, "because captains want the strongest teams, but it also helps them become more creative in how to use players of lesser skills. When people feel involved and appreciated they return year after year and that is our goal."
Cricket has been a feature of the Halifax Commons for many years, but until 2012 the wicket was a temporary one. "All our matches are played on this pitch," says Lane, "so we were keen to graduate to something a little more permanent and consistent. We had great support from Cricket Canada and the Halifax Regional Municipality, and were able to install a concrete deck with a synthetic surface."
Support of this kind, especially from local authorities, is critical to the success of cricket in Atlantic Canada. Many organisations have begun to realise that the sport is a means of attracting people to their region, and then keeping them. Nova Scotia is now leading the way.
"There is a continued influx of talented cricketers into Nova Scotia from a variety of backgrounds," says Lane. "Some come here for work, but the majority of our membership is made up of students who attend local universities.
"Nova Scotia has a much larger base of actively playing cricketers amongst their membership when compared to other provinces in Atlantic Canada and hence a larger pool of talent from which to pick a provincial side. However, as we have seen over the years, talent levels can fluctuate and people can come and go.
"The proximity of the cricket ground to the downtown core of Halifax and the campuses makes it a great location for cricket to thrive in the Province," Lane continues. "Our philosophy has been that if the association can provide a quality set-up that makes sure people really enjoy their cricket, then members are far more likely to want to stick around in Halifax and Nova Scotia to make it their home."
A steady stream of incoming cricketers is great, especially if they do stick around, but Lane and his NSCA colleagues recognise that the next major challenge is attracting local players.
"There has already been a lot of interest," notes Amit Joshi, "and now the pressure is on us to sustain a good level of cricket, as well as getting schools participating and playing cricket regularly. Numerous workshops have been conducted in recent years, but we now aim to get those schools incorporating cricket into the curriculum and eventually starting a schools league."
Lane says all provincial associations are trying to get more Canadian kids participating in the sport. "We have seen New Brunswick in particular make some fantastic strides in this area, and we are hearing good things out of other provinces too.
"It's not enough to simply provide cricket for an adult membership of expats and foreign students. We need to get more locals involved, and more importantly, get their children playing the sport too. It's definitely a challenge but the dream is that one day we may see a home-grown cricketer from Nova Scotia representing Canada at national team level."
Back in 1874, at the Halifax International Tournament, there was one home-grown player who had played first-class cricket: Nesbit Willoughby Wallace. A few years ago, the idea that Nova Scotia might produce a successor would have seemed fanciful. However, if 2012 is anything to go by, they might just be able to pull it off.
Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who helped establish the Cricket Association of Newfoundland & Labrador in 2010. He can now be found hunting fossils and cheap wickets around northern England.