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