April 8, 2013

Canada looks to come in from the cold

The national team is in tatters right now and the board still isn't efficiently run, but the new president is hoping things are going to change

Winters are long in Canada, but the country's cricket has been in the grip of a particularly cruel deep freeze. It has been one year since Ravin Moorthy became president of Cricket Canada with the aim of digging the country's cricket affairs out of their mess. Yet in the past year Canada did not host any international cricket and the national team has not only been beaten everywhere, it has also slipped to the bottom of both the Intercontinental Cup and World Cricket League rankings.

Anyone expecting to find a dejected cricket board president will be surprised to see that Moorthy is confident that things are turning around. Spring is in the air. Moorthy strongly believes progress has been made, but in areas not in public view. "We've now had four tours in a row where we weren't struggling to line up kits for the players, or having players late to join tours because visa issues were not sorted out." The bar is indeed that low.

Given the board has been dogged by inept management for years, Moorthy's first year in office has been spent rebuilding Cricket Canada's relationship with the ICC and trying to create an organisation that can have credible engagement with stakeholders, where expectations are realistic.

Cricket Canada has always been a volunteer-driven organisation, with office-bearers having little accountability, and the policy and operations arms being indistinguishable. Moorthy has slowly been trying to professionalise the board and bring in people suited to tasks rather than whoever raises their hand from among the volunteers. "Last year in March, we had one person on staff. Now we have six. Hiring professionals to be part of the organisation and giving them the freedom to work allows for fostering relationships with the ICC, Sport Canada and the players themselves," says Moorthy.

Be that as it may, the performance of the team remains dismal. There is no way to positively spin Canada's poor post-World Cup results, but Moorthy gives it a whirl: "It's not acceptable that we're in last place [in the Intercontinental Cup and World Cricket League], but we are seeing improvements in the younger players. We have an exciting young nucleus now, and if we surround them with some experienced players, we'll be in good shape."

Canada committed a strategic blunder before the World Cup by rushing teenagers into the team before they were ready, at the expense of more seasoned cricketers, some of whom are too disgruntled to return. The core that has now emerged, of Ruvindu Gunasekera, Hiral Patel, Nitish Kumar and Usman Limbada, is talented but brittle-looking when all play in the same XI.

So who are the experienced players who can come in to save the day? It has been two years since Ashish Bagai last played for Canada, although a comeback is expected in May. Zubin Surkari, Harvir Baidwan and Umar Bhatti are also rumoured to be back in contention for spots soon, but others seem lost forever. If they are in shape and available, could the likes of Geoff Barnett ever play for Canada again? "Of course," says Moorthy. "It's been made clear to the selectors that anybody who is eligible to play for Canada can be considered. We're not discounting anyone."

But there's a catch. "We want players to earn their place by performances in the [domestic] National Cricket League this summer," Moorthy says. It seems unlikely that players based overseas will come to play for - or those on the margins will be invited into - one of the NCL teams.

A region-based five-team 50-overs tournament, the NCL is meant to level the playing field in a country where this quite literally needs to happen - grounds vary vastly in terms of size and quality of the outfields.

Ontario remains the heartland of Canadian cricket, yet the national team has a healthy contingent of players from other provinces, where the standard of cricket is generally not comparable. It can be a millstone around the necks of national players from Alberta or British Columbia that their performances leading to selection for the national team came in leagues inferior to the ones in Ontario. Selection based on performances in the NCL is meant to end any such criticism. It would be dangerous to put all the eggs in the NCL basket, but there have been worse selection practices in Canada.

"We are still the leading Associate country in terms of the number of people playing cricket, the number of grounds, the number of umpires"
Ravin Moorthy, Cricket Canada president

No selector has ever resigned after a poor showing by the team, and the chairman of selectors, Chris James, has hitherto been unmoveable, even when the policy of picking young players proved wrong, when facing scathing criticism from former players, and given he had a physical altercation with a former captain.

Such are the wheelings and dealings of Cricket Canada elections that no board president has ever criticised James, and Moorthy, who, like James, hails from Alberta, is no different. But a key agenda for Moorthy remains the overhaul of the selection panel.

"We are moving towards having a selection panel that is not elected but appointed. We want to have selectors who have at least played first-class cricket," he said.

Moorthy also wants the team coach to be part of the selection panel. It is a sensible move in an environment where genuine talent evaluation has been sorely lacking, and if successfully implemented, will be a coup.

Among the issues still to be sorted out is the impasse between Cricket Canada and the Ontario Cricket Association (OCA), a dispute that has its genesis in a powerplay to oust former Cricket Canada president Ben Sennik. The issue mutated and ended in Cricket Canada expelling the OCA as a member, and recognising a new body, the Cricket Council of Ontario (CCO), as representing the province. While the OCA had the moral high ground, the practical reality was that the country's best league, the Toronto and District Cricket Association (TDCA) became a part of the CCO.

All sides claim to be acting in the best interests of cricket, but underneath the veneer lies nothing more than personality conflicts and petty politics. Lawsuits and counter-lawsuits were filed, but after a period of failed arbitration, the latest development is that all parties have agreed to take the matter out of the courts.

Mike Kendall, the president of the OCA, believes the matter can be settled amicably and wants his association to be part of the Cricket Canada fold again. The provincial body's continued exclusion only hurts the game in the country, according to Kendall. "We have a few players playing in our leagues who could make a real difference in the Canadian team, but unfortunately they aren't considered for selection because they are part of the OCA."

With Canada's performances on the slide, it would only make sense for hatchets to be buried and nets to be cast wide for players. It would be a feather in Moorthy's cap to show leadership and bring a harmonious end to a soap opera that has gone on too long.

In spite of being left in the dust by the likes of Ireland and Afghanistan, Canada, Moorthy believes, is the best-placed Associate country. "We are still the leading Associate country in terms of the number of people playing cricket, the number of grounds, the number of umpires - our potential is greater than all of the other Associates [ranked above Canada]."

But Moorthy knows that Cricket Canada will truly be judged on the performance of the national team. After a false start with Michael Dighton as coach, Moorthy is of the opinion that with former West Indies batsman Gus Logie, who has had a previous stint as Canada's coach, and High Performance manager David Patterson at the helm, the team is in good hands.

With a decent coaching staff, a showcase event in the summer for spotting talent, a potential new band of selectors, and some experienced players once again set to be part of the team, the stage is ready for Canada's comeback. Those who care about Canadian cricket will truly hope that winter is finally over.

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