The face-off for hockey gold in Vancouver is not the only recent U.S.-Canada match to attract international attention. A championship final between college teams from the rival countries was followed as far away as Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates, and broadcast on huge screens at Mississauga's Square One shopping mall.
The game in this case was cricket, and the unlikely victors were a last-minute entry from Toronto's York University who had never played together on an outdoor pitch until they arrived at the American College Cricket Spring Break Championship in Florida. After five days of play, they faced York College at the City University of New York to take the title. Their secret? A group of players that included several international students from cricket-mad countries, two of whom had played at the elite national level.
Team captain and York graduate Mahjuj Jasim Sourav spoke with The Globe and Mail about the thrill of victory, the rising popularity of cricket on Canadian campuses and his dream of it becoming a varsity sport.
Tell me how the team came together.
York University has a team that plays in a local league. When this tournament came up, I only found four players who could go because of restrictions around visas and cost and midterm exams. I started asking around, and as the weeks went by, players started coming in, and suddenly we had 13 people - 11 undergraduates and two alumni.
There were some players who were pretty experienced. Jai Patel, he used to play for the United Arab Emirates under-19 team before he came to study at York University. Raza Rehman, he used to play for Pakistan under-19 a while back, then he moved to Zimbabwe and then he moved to Canada. I knew them from school and the indoor tournaments that happen on campus every two or three months. If you go there, you see 60 or 70 students who come to play. We had some younger players who were the freshmen - 18, 19 years old. We had about four indoor sessions, about 10 to 12 hours of practice before going into the tournament. That's pretty much it.
There is a lot of talk about the internationalization of Canadian campuses. It sounds like this team is an example of that. How many countries were represented?
I'm from Bangladesh. I came in 2002. There are players from India, Pakistan, UAE, Zimbabwe, and there are Canadians who were born here. Most have been here three or four years. In the end, everyone knew there was a common goal: playing cricket and making sure we win. We had a vision and a plan that we were going to win the tournament.
Why did you decide to go to this tournament. How important is it?
I was googling college cricket and there was always news about this tournament. This is the biggest American college cricket tournament. There were a few motivations for us to go. One was playing in the Florida international cricket stadium. That's a big deal. There were 19 teams, and the University of the West Indies, who played as a guest team. If cricket wants to go to the mainstream, it needs to follow the NBA and NHL, where there are no borders. That was the interest from organizers in having a Canadian team. We were the only Canadian team this year, but next year they are hoping to get more.
Is cricket an expensive sport to play?
It is very expensive. One of the major expenses is the league fees to rent the ground. On top of that, the cricket ball is about $50, and every game you have to pay one or two umpires. A bat costs between $250 and $300, and there are the pads and gloves and the transportation. It adds up.
I understand there is a shorter format for cricket. Is that what you played in the tournament?
Yes, it was the quick format. The whole game gets done within three hours. They came up with this new version two or three years ago. It is more competitive, but it doesn't have the core values of cricket. Cricket is more laid back. This is more like soccer. Everything is done so fast. Personally, I like the one-day format. That's what I grew up with.
What kind of interest did the team generate?
Mostly we were posting the scores on Facebook, and the semi-final and the final were webcast live. On Saturday night before the final matches, we sent messages to all our friends. A lot of people saw the games, even back home in different countries. My mom and my father watched it in Bangladesh. It was being promoted as the U.S. versus Canada. The players were hyping it all up.
How big is college cricket?
It is still learning to walk. In Canada, we don't really have a university league. We used to have a university tournament and we are trying to get that back. It is not a varsity sport, but that is where we hope to take it. The number of people who want to play it will never be in short supply. There are always quality players coming in as international students and immigrants. Cricket is on the way up.