The Toronto experience proves that cricket can open up new markets. Tim de Lisle samples it

The Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club © Getty Images
Quiz question. Can you rank these venues by the number of one-day inter-nationals staged there: Bridgetown, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hobart and Toronto?

Bottom of the heap is Cape Town, with 11 matches so far. Peshawar and Bridgetown have 12, Hobart 14 and Calcutta 16. The clear winner is Toronto, with 22.

Not a lot of people know that. But then there is no shortage of ignorance about international cricket, Canadian-style. And even those who are aware of its existence are apt to look down their noses. Cricket in North America: sounds a bit Mickey Mouse, doesn't it?

Yes - until you get there. It is hard to imagine a less Disney-fied setting than the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. It sits in a green and affluent suburb, on a wide, placid road where the only advertisement hoarding in sight is selling after-school tuition for kids. The ground could be is Sussex, give or take the odd exotic tree, and the clubhouse is more English than the English equivalent, with dark-panelled walls, tinkling teacups and prints of The Earl of Derby with His Foxhounds. The teams are wearing white and playing on grass. There is no big video screen, and no merchandising stall. Final proof that this is cricket as we know it comes when you hear the reassuring sound of Geoffrey Boycott berating a batsman's technique.

Today's match is the second of three between Pakistan and West Indies, who need to win to keep the series alive. Both teams are at full strength, although Shoaib Akhtar, to general chagrin, has gone home injured, and Curtly Ambrose is missing too, under the new arrangement whereby he and Courtney Walsh take turns to put their aged feet up. Brian Lara gives Walsh the novel experience of sharing the new ball with an offspinner, the 19-year-old Chris Gayle. This provokes some Lara-bashing in the press box which is neatly silenced when Gayle bowls Saeed Anwar for 6. Pakistan are soon 80 for 4, but then they are used to that from the World Cup. Yousuf Youhana and Abdur Razzaq stop the rot, then start enjoying themselves. The last 10 overs go for 100, and the total of 222 is above average for these bowler-dominated times.

In Toronto, cricket, like Christmas, comes but once a year - in the brief gap between steamy summer and icy winter. The weather is just right today, with steady sunshine and a leaf-ruffling breeze. My only complaint is that the atmosphere is too sedate - there are maybe 1000 empty seats out of 5000, and the cameramen keep having to zoom in on the same gaggle of Pakistan flag-wavers - but there is a reason for that. West Indies were added to the bill at only 10 days' notice. Usually all the games are between India and Pakistan, for the Sahara Cup, but the Indian government decided that this would be inappropriate given the tension in Kashmir.

The Toronto organisers had a choice: call the whole thing off, or bring in a third team, to play in every match and keep the subcontinental titans from clashing. The West Indians got the call when they were in Singapore, taking on India and Zimbabwe in another one-day series. The final, between India and West Indies, was to be played on Tuesday September 7, but was delayed by rain to the next day. West Indies won in some style, with Ricardo Powell making 124. Powell had barely received his man-of-the-series award before he and the rest of the players boarded a night flight to London. They landed on Thursday and took a lunch-time flight to Toronto, landing in early afternoon. After netting on Friday, they took the field on Saturday, only three days after meeting on the other side of the world. Experts on jet-lag say that it takes a day to recover for every time zone you pass through. The Indians and West Indians passed through 12.

None of this would be happening if it were not for an Englishman with a bald head, a military air and a pair of wraparound shades. Andrew Wildblood, 41, is a vice-president of IMG, based at the London office in Chiswick. IMG is headed by the American super-agent Mark McCormack. Wildblood does some agenting for cricketers such as Anil Kumble and Ajay Jadeja- but only in India, the one part of the cricket world where the money is big enough to interest IMG. He is better described as a promoter or impresario. IMG don't just sell the rights to the Toronto event; they own it. `It's my baby,' Wildblood says. `I dreamt it up.'

The way it came about shows just how much international cricket has changed in the 1990s. It is only 12 years since a World Cup took place that was not seen around the world. Wildblood recalls with a shudder watching Mike Gatting's reverse sweep in the final at Calcutta against Australia. The shudder is not just because it was `a bloody awful shot', but because the final was the only game that was televised. At all the other matches, news footage, grainy and amateurish, was all we got. No-one thought much of it. It wasn't as if we had ever seen live pictures of an England Test match overseas.

Things began to change in 1988, when IMG struck a deal with the West Indies Cricket Board to film and sell internationals in the Caribbean. The filming was done by IMG's TV arm, TransWorld International, which handles properties (the jargon is catching) such as Wimbledon and the British Open golf. TWI had to build the infrastructure themselves, shipping scaffolding from island to island; good practice for Toronto, where every structure on the ground bar the clubhouse is temporary. The British rights were sold to a fledgling satellite TV company called Sky. Graham Gooch's shock victory in Jamaica in February 1990 became the first overseas Test piped live to British living-rooms.

IMG did similar deals with India in 1992 and Pakistan in 1993. `The Indian Board had always been very wealthy from gates, perimeter advertising and sponsorship,' Wildblood says, `but they had never earned a thing out of television. And there was no infrastructure either. The added value we brought was the ability to produce pictures in a very challenging environment.'

HAVING conquered the Indies, Wildblood turned his gaze to North America. He was keen to set up a series between India and Pakistan- who, at the time, met only in World Cups and other multi-team tournaments. It would have to take place on neutral ground, or `offshore' as Wildblood calls it, to reduce the risk of political disruption. The matches would fund themselves through TV deals in India and Pakistan. Prime time there is daytime in the US. Wildblood started talking to the US Cricket Association. `It was a waste of time. There were no facilities, and the association was riven by factions. So, more by way of a threat than anything else, I said I'm going to talk to the Canadians.'

Exhibition matches had already been held at the Sky-dome, Toronto's baseball stadium, which has something a cricket promoter might want: a retractable roof. But the pitches are artificial, and so are the teams - World XIs and so on. `I wasn't interested in unofficial knockabout stuff,' Wildblood says. `It had to be for real or not at all.'

ICC rules state that an international is only official if it has the blessing of the local governing body. That blessing does not come free. In spring 1996 Wildblood flew to Montreal (`bloody cold') to meet officers of the Canadian Cricket Association, armed only with preliminary agreements from his friends at the Indian and Pakistan boards. A deal was signed whereby IMG agreed to give the CCA a minimum amount over five years. Now he just had to find somewhere to play.

The Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, despite its word order, was not the obvious choice. The club has 2500 members, only about 50 of whom play cricket. Wildblood had heard of it, but was doubtful: he walked out to the middle with a tape measure to make sure the field was big enough. `The square was turf, but it didn't look like anything on which you could let Wasim Akram loose against Sachin Tendulkar and be confident that Sachin would survive.'

Nor was it clear whether the soil was suitable. But Wildblood agreed a deal to give it a go. He went home and rang Tim Lamb, whom he had spent time with on the England A tour of Pakistan in 1995-96 (managed by Lamb, and captained by Nasser Hussain). Wildblood needed a groundsman. Lamb recommended Mike Corley, who had been on the TCCB pitches committee. `They've never played cricket on this particular piece of God's earth before,' Wildblood told him. `But we've got to have a pitch that we can play on and not humiliate ourselves. Can you get on an aeroplane?'

This is a recurring theme - not just the air travel but the need to play proper cricket, and be seen to do so. `We had to be better than anyone else,' Wildblood says, `not only with the pitch but the way we look after the players, and the press, and the quality of the TV pictures. People are very inclined to say Toronto, cricket? What a joke, don't be absurd.'

Mike Corley brought in an expert from a local university to test the soil. `He told us the pitch was laid to sod rather than seeded, which meant the top would come off easily, even if it was hard,' Wildblood relates. `But Mike said he could do it.' They decided to create three strips, one more than Sharjah has. Corley made six flying visits before September 1996. Two water-hogs were bought from the US. Covers, nets and a score-board were flown out from England. `Well, not the scoreboard itself, but the computer that runs it. Came from a company in Norfolk called ESU.'

Wildblood had not yet secured `a dollar' of income. `But you had to believe that if you had Pakistan and India, people would be interested.' It helped that there were two satellite broadcasters in India, ESPN, owned by Disney, and Star, owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose rivalry was driven by cricket. `They have since merged, somewhat inconveniently for us. But others have come along to compete with them.' ESPN bought the rights. Wildblood won't say what they paid, but he does disclose that two-thirds of the revenue usually comes from TV. The total budget is `some millions'.

The main sponsor was Sahara, a giant Indian company that includes a bank, a home-shopping TV channel and an airline (that theme again). The Sahara Cup itself is here today, in a glass display case, waiting patiently for hostilities in Kashmir to cease. For 1999 only, the sponsor is DMC, a Canadian computer company run by Asian immigrants.

In September 1996, the first Sahara Friendship Cup was duly held. You can guess what happened next. `It poured and poured and poured,' Wildblood says. `We caught the tail-end of a hurricane. I remember sitting on my brand-new covers with water running through the guttering, thinking the rain would never stop.'

The tournament was due to start with two matches over a weekend. Hurricane Fran - for it was she - wiped out both days. Finally, after lunch on the Monday, North America's first one-day international got under way, as a 33-over slog. Pakistan made 170 for 9, and Tendulkar, with 89 at a run a ball, took India to victory. To make up for lost time, the first three matches were played back-to-back, before small weekday crowds. The pitch suffered and began to turn square. But there were four full matches, and three scores over 250, and the series seesawed nicely until Pakistan, who had twice been behind, won 3-2. If the series proved one thing,' said the Wisden Almanack, `it was that the clicking turnstile is no longer the index of marketing success.'

It's hard to say what that index is. Andrew Wildblood claims that the Sahara Cup is `incredibly popular' in India and Pakistan-`probably the most popular of all the one-day tournaments'. But he admits that ratings are hard to come by. `Put it this way, it makes the front page of the papers, not just the back.'

When the teams returned in 1997, India gained revenge, winning 4-1. Saurav Ganguly collected four match awards, and Toronto showed that it had joined the big boys by witnessing a disciplinary incident. Inzamam-ul-Haq was taunted about his girth by a spectator brandishing a megaphone and making liberal use of the Hindi word for potato, `aloo'. Inzamam lost patience and stormed into the stand, brandishing a bat handed to him on the boundary by the 12th man. The security men, hired to protect the players from the crowd, found themselves doing the opposite. Inzamam was given a two-match suspension by the match referee. Megaphones are now forbidden in Toronto: the list of banned items would impress the gatemen at Lord's.

A week later, the Indian team visited Pakistan for the first time since 1989-90, to take part in another one-day tournament. Cricket played on the shores of the Great Lakes was beginning to make ripples.

Mike Corley's pitches still hadn't delivered the run-feasts that people expect of one-day cricket. That changed in 1998. Pakistan came back from a game down with winning scores of 246 for 9, 257 for 5, 316 for 6 and 258 for 5. The first century on Canadian soil came from the explosive Shahid Afridi, the second from the exquisite Mohammad Azharuddin. Inzamam, evidently deciding that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, helped himself to the man-of-the-series award.

Meanwhile a shadow was passing over the face of world cricket in the form of allegations of match-fixing. Matches involving teams from the subcontinent were under greater suspicion than most. Matches held in odd places were under the greatest suspicion of all. In some quarters, it was said that all the games in Toronto were fixed. Wildblood was incensed. `I'm fairly sure,' he says, `that we've only had one game that was fixed.'

If the Pakistanis are trying to throw today's game, they are making a poor fist of it. Waqar Younis takes the new ball in Shoaib's place, and bowls fast enough to make you wonder whether Wasim Akram was right to leave him out in the World Cup. Saqlain Mushtaq takes up where he left off with Surrey. Brian Lara, after easing to 26 in a flurry of imperious flicks, is undone by an umpire, given lbw to Saqlain when the ball has pitched middle-and-off and is turning away. Jimmy Adams hangs around and Wavell Hinds makes a composed maiden fifty, but the game falls flat and the series is over. The third match, next day, is thinly attended and notable only for the first glimpse of yet another Pakistan fast bowler who combines high speed with wicked swing. His name is Shabbir Ahmed and he finishes with three wickets, all bowled, and 20 wides.

Overall, scores were lower again, and West Indies' performances were as subdued as their supporters. But the main feeling is one of relief that the tournament happened at all. The Canadian Cricket Association issues a statement expressing its gratitude to the various boards and thanking the PCB for its `unswerving commitment', which may be the first time the word unswerving has ever been used in relation to Pakistan cricket.

Those who come to the ground clearly know and love their cricket. At lunch, two Caribbean-Canadians could be heard having a heated discussion about the talents of Peter Lashley, the Barbados batsman whose international career consisted of four Tests 30 years ago.

The senior official at the game is also of Caribbean descent. Dr Geoff Edwards, pronounced Joff, moved to Toronto in 1968 from St Vincent and the Grenadines to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. He captained Ontario - no mean feat in a province that has two million residents with origins in cricket-playing countries. He was part of the second wave of Canadian cricketers - the first was from England, the second from the Caribbean, the third from Asia. Now, he is president of the CCA. Ensconced in a clubhouse armchair, he cuts a genial figure, but the friendly aura is accompanied by plenty of ambition for Canada. `We want full one-day status,' he says, `hopefully within the next year, or two at the most. Like Kenya and Bangladesh, we will prove by performance on the field that we can compete.'

But hang on - isn't this the team that made 45 off about 40 overs against England in the 1979 World Cup? `Yes, we got demolished by England,' Edwards admits. But I think we'll take them on pretty well in the future. We've got a bunch of guys who are fairly decent.'

This month, Canada take part in the Red Stripe Bowl, West Indies' one-day competition. Next year, if all is quite on the Kashmir front, the Sahara Cup will resume. The year after, Toronto takes another step up the global ladder by hosting the ICC Trophy, the qualifying tournament for the 2003 World Cup. `That wouldn't have happened without this event,' Geoff Edwards says. `IMG have done a wonderful job for us.'

IMG's money has enabled the CCA to develop half-a-dozen turf pitches in Toronto, and to stop relying on government handouts. It is still a modest organisation with only one fulltime employee - a coach-cum-executive in Winnipeg, three hours' flight away - but not for much longer. `We are volunteer-driven,' Edwards says, `but we have to move past that now. Our plans are to have a national secretariat and a national coach. We need that infrastructure.'

Is he dreaming of Test status? `One step at a time.'

When Andrew Wildblood talks of being `better than anyone else', he is showing a little too much parental pride. The pitches this year left something to be desired; the side batting second often found the bounce uneven. The TV coverage was indeed high-quality, with excellent close-ups and familiar commentators (Gavaskar and Cozier as well as Boycott), though it was a shame that it was available in Canada only on pay-per-view. The press were indeed well catered-for. About 50 reporters turned up - more than you would find at, say, Australia v South Africa at Melbourne- and the Toronto PR company hired by IMG supplied them with a stream of press releases, statistics, curries and cakes. Colin Croft, writing on the Cricinfo website, said he had never seen such good organisation anywhere on his cricket travels: `Very well done, guys!!'

For the view from the dressing-room, I sought out Jimmy Adams. He had played in Toronto before - he was at the Skydome only the previous month, appearing for a World XI against an Asian XI - but it was his first time at this event. `I think it's good,' he said. `It's disappointing that we've lost both series but I have more of a world view on cricket - I think every effort should be made to carry the game to new places. The TV people will go to the North Pole if they can sell the game. It hasn't been easy for us physically, but you can see Wavell Hinds getting a start in international cricket, and Chris Gayle. The kids need the experience. It took me many years to play 50 one-day internationals - they'll learn quicker because they'll play more.'

He described the pitch, with a dry smile, as not the greatest. `The scores have reflected that. You might be in, but the ball still doesn't come on to the bat. But I've seen worse wickets. The players are comfortable, the amenities are good, they've looked after us very well.' His only criticism concerns the stands. `If you're trying to sell the game, it's time for permanent structures.'