'No future for Canada until the system improves'
Rizwan Cheema is in the last phase of his career. He knows it could have, nay, should have, gone better. In 2008 the world lay outside the door of Canadian cricket and Cheema looked set to make a name for himself as a destructive hitter. Already 30 years old on his debut, he set to work in a hurry. There was no time to play himself in; he wanted to make an impact immediately, and he did, looking untroubled during that golden home season, facing the bowling attacks of West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and clouting sixes at will. That October was one of unseasonable warmth in Toronto, and Cheema's form with the bat meant that winter, which is always at Canadian cricket's gate, would be kept at bay for a while longer.
Fast-forward some six years to the 2015 World T20 Qualifier in Scotland and Ireland and Cheema brings Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones to mind - sword drawn, watching the Bolton army approach, knowing this is going to be a rout, knowing that it should never have to come this, knowing that he is better than this. And that his team too was better than this.
Canada went into the tournament optimistic about finally getting back on Broadway, but before the tournament even began, players began dropping off with fitness issues and due to confusing selection issues typical of Canada cricket. As captain, Cheema could only fume at his decimated ranks as a return to cricket's main stage slipped out of reach.
Cheema knows what Canadian cricket has lost in the last two years and what it continues to haemorrhage. Dropping down to Division 3, losing ODI status, missing out on the World T20 again - he knows there is no easy way back. His own career for Canada hangs in the balance, but true to form he pulls no punches in assessing where Canadian cricket currently stands.
"There's no future for the Canadian team until the system improves," Cheema says. "There's no cricket planned for us. There's nothing for Canada to look forward to until another qualifier comes around. Once you slip down the pecking order [in Associate cricket] it's hard to climb out. It's hard to even have players for the team. If there's no career as a cricketer, how do you keep your players interested?
"When we lost ODI status [at the World Cup Qualifier in 2014] I was not in the team, but I was so depressed. I felt like no one at the board truly understood what this meant - the magnitude of this loss for our cricket and what it would take to get it back."
Cheema's list of frustrations with Canadian cricket is long, but team selection and player compensation are particular bugbears.
"You can be practising with someone and a week before a tour you don't even know who will be going. As a captain it makes it very hard to plan. I look at Ireland, Netherlands and Afghanistan. They keep their teams largely intact. There's continuity there. At the 2015 World Cup Qualifier, we changed seven players as well as the coach from the previous tournament just a few weeks earlier. How is the team going to do well?
"After the 2011 World Cup we included six to eight kids from the Under-19 team. You need youth in a team, but we put in too many players who were not experienced or even mature enough to play for Canada, and I should say there are a few of those who are still around and still haven't matured. The Canada cap came too easily for too many players. It doesn't take much to get selected for Canada, but once you're selected you should at least play with your full commitment."
Cheema cites the World T20 Qualifier as symptomatic of many of the ills plaguing the team.
"There are guys [in the team] who won't put their hand up when the team needs them. Just having talent is not enough. In T20 cricket there's no room for selfishness. In 50-over cricket you can still play for yourself - score a hundred and it benefits the team. But in T20 cricket sometimes you'll get ten overs to bat and sometimes only four balls, and people don't understand this very basic thing. I told the team I don't care about anyone's individual performance or how fast you can bowl - tell me what you've done for the team. Every ball I've ever faced, every ball I've ever fielded, I did it with passion and pride in representing Canada. If you want to play for Canada it has to mean a lot to you, or there's no point. We had players more focused on what was happening with their club back in Toronto than how we as the national team were doing."
Cheema says that Canada's preparation for the World T20 Qualifier was so poor that prior to departure the squad didn't have a single practice session. He is also particularly aggrieved that no fitness tests were conducted before departure and that Canada went to the Qualifier with players of questionable fitness, who started dropping off once the tournament began. Worse, there were those who the captain suspects were not injured at all but simply balked when the going got tough.
"I am disappointed in the players who hid their injuries and went to the tournament but couldn't play a match. This isn't fair to your team-mates or the country. I've played with broken fingers all taped up. I played the whole 2011 World Cup with an injured elbow. You have to man up when you're representing your country. If someone says, 'Oh my shoulder is hurting' - that's nothing. The day the team needs you, you say you're injured - I don't understand that. Even our physio was amazed. He asked me, 'What kind of injuries are these? One day it's on one side, the other day it's on the other side. Are these guys serious?' In the last match we were literally down to 11 players. One more injury and we couldn't have fielded an XI. There wasn't even anyone who could run and bring water."
Cheema says there are cricketers in Canada who have the drive and the right attitude, but in Canadian cricket's greatly diminished circumstances, the practical realities of life coming in the way of cricket are unavoidable. It may well spell the end of his own international career.
"Money isn't everything, but the truth is that if I don't have the resources to train properly then I can't compete at the highest level. I don't get paid enough to be able to focus just on cricket. Cricket is my passion - the only thing I've ever loved is cricket, but if you're playing international cricket, you have to give it your best shot. I feel embarrassed when I'm not good enough. If I don't have the resources to stay fit for international cricket and support myself, I don't want to play just for the sake of playing."
While Cheema maintains that he wants to continue playing for Canada, what he expects from the board, especially now, seems beyond its reach to deliver. Cricket Canada is notorious for being cash-strapped, but it's a position that Cheema has no sympathy for.
"There are people at Cricket Canada whose job it is to make sure the organisation has money to function properly and pay its players. It's not the players' problem that the board is short of funds. If it's somebody's job to secure sponsorship and they haven't done that, why are they still around?"
It is a fair question. Cricket Canada is not an organisation where officials are known to step down after a calamitous performance or failure to deliver on an undertaking. Players, though, have been known to walk away. Former captain Ashish Bagai did it. And Cheema may well be on his way too.
While Cheema always talked about his desire to take on the best players in the world and be known as a destructive hitter, it's not the World Cup warm-up boundary-fest against England, or the T20 bludgeoning of Sri Lanka, or the ferocious 89 against West Indies that he cites as his career highlight. It's Canada's 2009 World Cup Qualifier win against Kenya, where he scored 49 off 24 balls. "That win put us in the 2011 World Cup," he says with pride, before adding, "hitting Muttiah Muralitharan for two sixes in the World Cup was also pretty special. No one else did that."
Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures