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A ‘cricketer’s dream’ awaits for teenage athletes

Neil Ramdath, 17, one of a dozen Toronto youth selected to participate in the sixth annual Cricket Across the Pond program, July 4, 2013.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Cricket was Sabes Rasanayagan's closest connection to home. Now, he's set to become a young ambassador for the sport overseas.

Growing up in Jaffna, at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rasanayagan was resourceful in his efforts to play – he carved his own cricket bat from a tree branch, reluctant to ask his parents to buy him a 2,000-rupee (about $15) bat. He and his friends couldn't find cricket balls and used cheap tennis balls instead.

The days of playing rudimentary cricket came to a tragic end for Mr. Rasanayagan when the 2004 tsunami claimed the lives of his mother and little brother. Mr. Rasanayagan, his father and older brother moved to Brampton, Ont., but the transition wasn't easy. Mr. Rasanayagan didn't speak English and says he got teased by his new schoolmates. He spent a lot of time alone watching cricket highlights on television and the Internet.

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Then, he stumbled upon a newly opened cricket pitch in his own city. Today, Mr. Rasanayagan, 17, has won seven trophies and 12 medals from games at his cricket academy. And he has just won a scholarship to compete in England and visit the famous Lord's cricket ground, often known as the "home of cricket" in London.

"I'm really excited," said Mr. Rasanayagan, adding that success in the game has boosted his popularity among his schoolmates. "The main thing is learning life lessons, like experience of playing with the English people and sharing our cultures."

Mr. Rasanayagan and 11 other young players received the scholarship from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants' Cricket Across the Pond program, which aims to promote cricket among youth ages 16 to 20. The students, from schools in Brampton, Markham, Mississauga and Toronto, will journey to England on Thursday July 18 to play eight games against local teams.

There were 120 applicants for the program who had to prove they were great cricket players and deeply involved in their communities. "It's a once in a lifetime experience to go on a tour like that," said Neil Ramdath, 17, a student at St. Francis Xavier Secondary School in Mississauga, who made the final cut. "Cricket is absolutely booming in England. So, to go there and experience the cricket there and the facilities they have there – you can't get that anywhere else. It's a cricketer's dream."

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald once declared cricket as Canada's national sport because it was so popular, but today, enthusiasts from cricket-playing countries, like Mr. Rasanayagan, have difficulty finding a pitch to play on. Now cricket is slowly starting to make a comeback in Canada. After 24 years of failing to qualify for the World Cup, Canada's national team made it to the last three finals, in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Team members heading for England say they were inspired to play competitively by the World Cups.

CIMA Toronto director Ranil Mendis has been one of the driving forces behind promoting cricket in the Greater Toronto Area. "Because it's British-based, a lot of the countries that Brits ruled at one point or the other have this qualification as well as the love for the sport of cricket," he said.

Mr. Mendis and CIMA's board of directors reached out to high schools to hold tournaments. The number of participating schools jumped to 58 in 2013 from 10 in 2011.

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While cricket is expanding within schools, the sport seems to dominate in the South Asian community among youth. CIMA's visiting team to England is entirely made up of first- or second-generation Canadians from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Trinidad. Many of the players say they either played cricket on side streets back home, or learned to play from their parents here. But, Mr. Ramdath says, "I don't think they play it because their parents want them to. I think they play it because they enjoy it."

Mr. Mendis believes that cricket should become more mainstream in Canadian society. He's advocating for more cricket grounds to make the game more accessible. Toronto has 248 baseball diamonds, and only 29 cricket pitches. Mississauga has seven cricket pitches, three of which are shared soccer fields. Brampton, with a larger South Asian population, has 13 pitches.

"[If] you look at sports worldwide," Mr. Mendis said, "Cricket World Cup is only second to soccer World Cup in terms of the number of participating countries and the worldwide audience."

Siddhanth Shekhar, 18, is one of the players going to England this week. He used to play the game as a kid in Mumbai and two years ago, he and three friends helped to create a cricket team at his Markham high school. When their teacher helped facilitate an after-school meeting, 35 students showed up.

"We thought we would struggle to make 11. But suddenly, we had 35 guys," said Mr. Shekhar. The unexpected interest in a cricket team called for two tryouts.

"It's a growing sport. It needs players to step up and take the mantle and move it forward."

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