Cricket in Canada making inroads

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:06 AM ET

In Canada, when kids dream of becoming professional hockey players, the path leads through junior programs from coast to coast.

In Canada, when a baseball player has dreams of becoming a professional, the road runs through a U.S. scholarship program.

In Canada, when a cricket player wants to become a professional, the road runs, well ... nobody knows where it runs. Which is the problem the game faces in this country, says Brian Hale, president of the Toronto Cricket Academy.

THE CHALLENGE

"We know where we want to go. Figuring out how to get there is the challenge," Hale said at the Scotiabank Series, four one-day matches featuring the West Indies, Bermuda and Canada with the final going Sunday at the Maple Leaf Cricket Club in King City. Canada ranks 14th in the world. Today they play the West Indies, ranked seventh.

"Right now Canada is a minnow," Hale says. "We have to make our players pros. That takes money and that only comes if you perform. Sponsors don't give unless they get something in return ... at the moment we are boys trying to become men."

With that adolescence come all the accompanying growing pains in evidence at this event. As he watches the action along with Pubudu Dassanayake, who once played for Sri Lanka and was hired as Canada's first national coach last November, Bermuda's Carl Douglas hits the ball over the boundary. The game is halted while a West Indies fielder retrieves it from the bordering waist-high weed patch.

"The facilities here are a little spartan," Dassanayake says. To put this in perspective: It's like inviting Vernon Wells and the Jays to play -- then expecting him to fetch a batted ball out of a cow pasture.

"For guys on teams like the West Indies, cricket is a full-time job. They train every day. Most make about $100,000," Dassanayake says. "Our players have to work, mostly in factories and places like Eatons. They struggle to get time off to train maybe two or three times a week. Once you become a national team player in countries like Sri Lanka, you're like a king."

Our national team players get a per diem.

Dassanayake is hoping for a couple wins against the West Indies this week. It is part of the dream to get into the top nine in the world, moving Canada into the International Cricket Council's top grouping. It would mean big money, up to $25 million in funding. It could mean improved publicity. This week's tournament is on the Asian TV network which has all the reach of a one-armed wallpaper hanger.

"I'm sure a lot of people didn't even know it's happening. Right now what we're getting is the diehard fan.

"If this was being held in Sri Lanka there would be 30,000 people here, it would be live on TV and the capital city would be empty because nobody would show up for work," says Dassanayake.

It could mean improved facilities. There's no bus service Sunday, other days it's about a kilometre walk from bus stop to park. There are no food tents and it is impossible to buy so much as a bottle of water. Cricket fans in this country need to be hardy.

There is no public address system. You can't tell the players from obscurity, although it doesn't seem to bother the couple hundred fans, a few of whom saunter near the boundary to get autographs from West Indies players between batted balls.

These are humble times for cricket in Canada. But there are indications of a bigger future.

"I'm an optimist," says Hale.

Much hope is placed on Canada's under-15 club which won a world-class tournament in Bermuda and will provide the core of our national team for the 2012 under-19 World Cup.

"You're starting to see kids playing with cricket bats in the streets," says Dassanayake, "just like in Sri Lanka which has about 200,000 players. In Canada we have about 70,000 but with all the immigrants we're closing the gap -- within the next five years we'll be close to having as many people playing here as in Sri Lanka -- and they're considered cricket crazy."


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