January 5, 2014

Canada's Man Friday bids adieu

Leading a hodgepodge side, keeping wickets, and scoring runs - Ashish Bagai was the glue that held the team together

Ashish Bagai: never flashy, always consistent © AFP

One cold winter morning in Toronto, with snow on the ground and a biting wind making any thoughts of cricket utterly fanciful, I sat across from Ashish Bagai in a café, discussing Canada's World Cup preparation.

It was a few days before Canada announced their squad for the 2011 World Cup, but Bagai was already sewn up as captain. I slid a piece of paper across the table to him. On it was what I thought was the best Canadian XI for the World Cup. Bagai took a moment to study the names, and suppressed a wry smile before it fully formed. "That's a good team. Not too different from my ideal combination."

In the end there were four players on that team sheet of 11 who were not even picked for the 2011 World Cup. Bagai was disappointed but never let on publicly, and he quietly did the best with what he had. As he retires from cricket, I think back to this moment and all that it encapsulates about the game in Canada.

There was a time when Bagai was the ideal man to lead Canada's multicultural team. He could communicate at their level with players as different as Geoff Barnett and Hiral Patel, and more importantly, link them in a common cause. I once described Bagai as the glue that held the team together, and he was just that; shouldering the burden of leading a hodgepodge side, keeping wickets, and scoring runs, all while dealing with coaches, selectors and board officials of varying competence.

Bagai, along with Rizwan Cheema and John Davison, is the only Canadian cricketer widely known outside Canada. While the other two made a name for themselves with sporadic showstopping moments, Bagai did it with consistency of performance and by being the foundation piece in an innings. Nothing about him was ever flashy, and he was always determined.

When Bagai made his ODI debut in the 2003 World Cup, there was considerable optimism around Canadian cricket. Ten years later despite his best efforts, he leaves behind a team in a shambles

His career record is wholly respectable - and in the context of Associate cricket, immense. Only 17 of his 62 ODI matches were against Full Member countries, where he scored 293 runs at 18.31, but in Associate cricket Bagai was a force to be reckoned with, scoring 1671 runs in 45 ODI matches at an average of 46.41. And of course, there was always his wicketkeeping - neat and sharp enough to merit inclusion on that basis alone.

As captain, odd selection and management practices, coupled with legitimate governance and financial challenges faced by the sport, made Bagai's job difficult. He quit the team after the 2011 World Cup to go back to school and at the time was disillusioned enough with the set-up of Canadian cricket to contemplate hanging up his boots for good. Much was needed by way of coaxing, arm-twisting and incentives to bring Bagai back for a final hurrah.

The most appetising of the dangling carrots was in the form of two ICC qualifying events - for the World Twenty20 in November and then the World Cup proper in January 2014. After more than two years out, Bagai came back this past summer, but something had changed. His form with bat and gloves remained consistent, but he was no longer able to get performances out of the team. Disagreements with coach Gus Logie were well known, though neither has ever publicly confirmed this to be the case.

In spite of having as strong a team as Canada have had in the past five years, and in spite of Bagai's own good form, the side crashed out of the World Twenty20 qualifiers in embarrassing fashion, with a number of players later grumbling behind the scenes about the captain being interested only in his own figures. Bagai retained his place and the captaincy for the January tournament but withdrew from the squad and retired shortly after it was named.

Bagai is Canada's most capped player and leading run scorer in ODI cricket by some distance. His records will stand for many years to come, in part because Canada's future as an ODI-playing country is hanging by a thread, with a World Cup berth increasingly looking out of reach.

His retirement puts the spotlight on where Canadian cricket currently stands. When Bagai made his ODI debut in the 2003 World Cup, there was considerable optimism and a sense of achievement around Canadian cricket. Ten years later, despite his best efforts, he leaves behind a team in shambles and Canadian cricket as a whole teetering on the brink of an awful precipice. Like Davison before him, Bagai became the get-out-of-jail card for Cricket Canada. If things were bad, recalling him was supposed to fix it all. Sometimes it worked, mostly it didn't, and yet it remained the only option to right the wrongs and cure the ills.

The Canadian cricket team without Bagai always has the feel of missing something and for a man slight of frame, he leaves incredibly big shoes to fill. His career ends at a time when he is playing as well as he ever has done, which only adds to the sense of loss.

Cricket in Canada remains a game in every sense of the word, providing a little a bit of fantasy on a cold winter's day. For a decade Ashish Bagai lived the dream of every amateur cricketer in Canada and he made the best of it. He has shown young cricketers the way and that is his greatest gift to Canadian cricket.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • OttawaRocks on January 6, 2014, 5:44 GMT

    Best of luck to Bagai but Canada will be missing his leadership, especially in ODIs and first class cricket where I felt his talents were the strongest. Canada needs to develop school programs for cricket all across Canada. If necessary, keep it simple and introduce just 20/20 all across the country, followed by televised high school tournaments. It would be great to develop born and bread Canadians rather than overseas born players. Nothing wrong with overseas players but strong native born players will translate into a strong grass roots movement and a strong future Canadian team that can challenge the Big 10 (i.e., test tier nations).

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2014, 18:36 GMT

    Remember Ashish playing with our team as a youngster,I was the regular keeper but gave up the gloves whenever he came with the other kids,I guess he was about 15,nice kid!

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2014, 12:55 GMT

    Belonged from my school in Delhi as well. I was a fan of his since I saw him playing for Canada in 2003. Good player. Proud Columban. Best of Luck!

  • android_user on January 5, 2014, 11:39 GMT

    Would love a talent camp in Toronto pretty soon by CC. Handfuls of talents in school cricket coming out each year. would love to give it a shot myself too

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2014, 8:42 GMT

    Well played Ashish, you truly put your heart in to it......I hope and request you to work in some degree with the associate nations to develop this beautiful game.

    Cricket needs people like you.

    Thank you once again...for the joy you got to Canada.... Well Played

  • OptimusPrimal on January 5, 2014, 6:31 GMT

    Great read. We have six solid months of cricket in Canada. Fairer weather can be had in southern US. There is a lot of great talent here. Rather than wasting money in other places ICC should seriously explore the north American market. If USA gets into the act then there is no end to the heights this game can achieve.

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2014, 6:24 GMT

    Canada cricket has huge potential but because of the unprofessional manner and favoritism that run deep in the administrators not the best team is always selected for Canada. Bagai was a classy player and I am a big fan of him. Hopefully someday his dream of he representing the best XI in the tournaments is fulfilled. Best of luck to him

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