For what may be the first time ever in a Twenty20 match, international cricketers actually got to sit in a genuine, bona fide, baseball dugout. Toronto's impressive Rogers Centre (formerly Skydome), home of Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, on Saturday hosted what was to be a match between an International XI and an Asia XI. Both teams looked good on paper, with the Asia XI apart from having Sanath Jayasuriya, Tamim Iqbal and Nasir Hossain, also slated to have the bulk of the Pakistan team: Misbah-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi, Mohammad Hafeez, Saeed Ajmal, Umar Akmal and Hammad Azam, not to mention the inventor of the doosra himself - Saqlain Mushtaq.
Lining up against them was to be a Brian Lara led team that included the likes of Jacob Oram, Tim Southee, Kyle Mills, Stuart MacGill and a trio of wicketkeepers: Mark Boucher, Brendan Taylor and Canada's own Ashish Bagai.
Word had been out for a few days prior to the match, that there were issues surrounding the participation of Pakistan's players, but it was only on the eve of the match that organisers formally announced that the Pakistanis would not be coming because of NOC issues. Tamim was also quietly removed from the players' roster without official explanation. The press conference went on with the organisers putting on a brave face despite the setback, while players practiced behind them looking tired but enjoying being in the Rogers Centre. After spending countless hours flying Auckland-Sydney-Abu Dhabi-Toronto, New Zealand's Tim Southee was irritated to learn that there was a direct flight from Auckland to Vancouver, and then a short one to Toronto. MacGill and Grant Flower expressed disappointment at not having the Pakistanis playing and with the roof of the Rogers Centre closed on a warm and sunny day, the mood seemed sombre.
Match Day and with the news of the Pakistan stars' absence more widely known, many in the crowd seemed subdued going into the great stadium. Toronto is one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities and fans showed up wearing jerseys of players from West Indies, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa you name it - even Canada. When Canada's Rizwan Cheema was told there were a few fans wearing jerseys with his name, he said "there were more than a few - there were like, ten or twelve" prompting Cricket Canada president Ravin Moorthy to kid Cheema about how he knew that.
Once into the stadium anticipation grew, but it was hard not to feel for the fans wearing Afridi jerseys and clutching Pakistani flags. The mood during the match was going to depend a lot on them.
With the Pakistanis out, the Canadian duo of Bagai and Cheema were shifted to the Asia XI and were joined by Canadian team-mates, Jimmy Hansra, Ruvindu Gunasekera and Hiral Patel, whose aggressive World Cup half-century against Australia would not have escaped the notice of the bigger names in the International XI.
Toss time, and Jayasuriya came out with Boucher instead of Lara. Lara was said to have arrived in Toronto the previous evening but nobody seemed to know where he was. Boucher won the toss for him, and decided to bat when word came down that Lara was being replaced in the line-up with yet another Canadian player, Cecil Parvez. At this point, no one would have blamed the crowd if they expressed their displeasure with a chorus of boos, but instead a remarkable thing happened - when the umpire standing at what would be 2nd base called play, the crowd enthusiastically cheered the first ball and groaned when Devon Smith patted it back to the bowler Chanaka Welegedara. This crowd was here to enjoy a Twenty20 match and it didn't matter too much who was playing.
A few overs in, Lara was finally spotted in the players' dugout in his street clothes. Misplaced chants of "Pakistan Zindabad" were now replaced with "Lara, Lara". The great man appeared unmoved.
Meanwhile, the game continued and every boundary, every stop, every catch, every quick ball (those courtesy of Tino Best) were vociferously cheered. The boo-birds only came out once, when Hossain let a catch drop a couple of feet in front of him. The loudest and most sustained cheer of the match came when Saqlain, the only Pakistan player on show, was given the ball. Jacob Oram who had struck two big sixes off Jayasuriya in the previous over, attempted a third off Saqlain that went high but was expertly caught by Hossain within an inch of the boundary rope - the crowd went wild, for Saqlain's wicket, Hossain's redemptive catch and Oram's whirlwind innings.
With the Asia XI now dominated by Canadian players, Cheema found himself in a partnership with Patel and both struck powerful shots off MacGill, Oram, Mills and Best. A half-tracker from Oram was duly smashed by Cheema for the biggest six of the game.
The Asia XI, unfancied in this match and chasing a target of 165, won the game with an over to spare, in no small part because of the efforts of the Canadian players and a vintage assault from Jayasuriya who hit a six and seven fours in his innings of 41.
An estimated crowd of 12,000 looked small in the massive Rogers Centre, but they had a great time and once again this match showed the potential of cricket in Canada - as a destination for foreign teams, but also for more games involving Canada itself. Fans do appreciate the game here and are starting to learn who the players are on the Canadian team, something that can only further fuel the growth of cricket in Canada and get a few more people wearing Cheema jerseys.