Canada were the first team to arrive in Bangladesh for the 2011 World Cup on Wednesday evening and, though there is little local awareness about the team, their ride from the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport to the team hotel made headlines for the traffic jam it caused - a reminder to Dhakaites that with the excitement of hosting a World Cup come the attendant security and other issues.
Being the first team on the block, though, ensured maximum attention for Canada and their captain Ashish Bagai. Freshly shaved, Bagai, 29, was hardly recognizable to even those journalists present on that day in Durban in 2003 when Bangladesh were shocked by the Canadians.
Bagai, the wicketkeeper so synonymous with Canadian cricket and one of seven professional players in the side, is leading a team that has seven different nationalities and an age-bracket typical of the ICC's Associate nations. There is the 16-year-old Nitish Kumar (the second-youngest ever to play an ODI) alongside John Davison, at 40 the elder statesman of the side if not the entire tournament. Rizwan Cheema and Zubin Surkari - the sole Zoroastrian in this World Cup - are the bats that are billed to make heads turn while the towering Henry Osinde looks more like an NBA star. There is also the legbreak bowler Balaji Rao, an experienced Ranji Trophy player who moved to Canada for his family. And Bagai himself, born in New Delhi, but having played all his cricket in Canada.
"I get asked that question a lot actually," Bagai concedes. "Sometimes we are called the United Nations team because we have seven different nationalities. It is challenging at times, players here grew up in different cultures and they approach cricket differently.
"They play for a common cause though initially it was a bit of a struggle. We learn a lot about each other, the different cultures. But it has been a real treat to lead the side over the last two years. We learn a lot from each other, we take advantage of this."
Expatriates keep cricket alive in Canada and though they get a small window every year, they make the best of it. Balaji, who migrated in 2001 to Toronto at the age when a legspinner usually approaches his peak, is one of the part-timers in the squad despite his vast experience in the Ranji Trophy. But in a country where cricket careers remain a gamble, Balaji had to make a choice between his mother and a promising career.
"It was my choice to go to Canada and play," he said. "I was doing well but I had to move due to my family conditions. My mother was unwell, she had cancer, so I had to take care of her. It was either play cricket or take care of her, and family was important to me."
Balaji took time off from his insurance job (he specialises in auto claims) to play in the World Cup. "I have the knowledge of playing in these conditions. I was exposed to first-class cricket from the age of fifteen. I have played for and against Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble," he said, counting among his close friends VVS Laxman, and former India internationals Sridharan Sriram and WV Raman. "They have been in contact with me. I am very excited to play in India actually. I have lots of sweet memories but the sweetest has to be taking the wicket of Steve Waugh."
With the expansion of cricket in Canada over the last two years through the introduction of professional contracts, the Inter-Continental Cup and World Cup, the national players haven't often sat idle during the long winters. "We get five months, from May to September, like the English season," Bagai said. "Over the last couple of years we have been travelling quite a bit in the winter. We have had camps in Sri Lanka for a couple of months in the winter. We've done camps in India and Dubai. The board has done pretty good trying to get us prepared for this event."
The man himself left his banking job in 2009, a move that underlined his faith in the system. "For the last couple of years I've been involved in no other profession. We have seven full-time professional cricketers and the rest are contracted till the World Cup. It was a big step for Canadian cricket to get the central contracts. For the last six months, there have been part-time contracts for the rest of the guys."
What has affected them though, is the ICC's proposal to trim the next World Cup to just ten teams; it would be a big blow for Canada's cause and could mean this is Bagai's last such tournament. "It is pretty disappointing and frustrating to have that decision made. But that decision was made keeping a lot of things in mind but that is not in our minds, as players. They have more teams in the Twenty20 World Cup, which they think is the future of world cricket."
Canada are in Bangladesh to play two warm-up games, first of which is against the hosts in Chittagong on Saturday. Canada take on Sri Lanka in their opening World Cup game in Hambantota on February 20 and the skipper is looking keenly into that contest. "It is a new venue, even they won't know what to expect, so it's going to be tough," Bagai said. Obviously Lasith [Malinga] and [Muttiah] Muralitharan are the big threats but if we can get through a couple of their bowlers we have a good chance."
It would be a mammoth challenge but if Canada are dreaming an improbable dream, there's no better country to find inspiration to carry it out.