In the 150-plus years since former prime minister John A. Macdonald declared cricket the first national sport of Canada, it’s probably fair to say that it no longer occupies the lofty perch it once did in this country.
After taking part in three successive men’s World Cups from 2003-11, failing to qualify for the two most recent World Cups has done little to improve the men’s team standing. The women’s team has never qualified for a global showcase since its debut in 2006. To make matters worse, the men’s team performed so badly in failing to qualify for the 2015 World Cup it was stripped of its one-day international status altogether, hampering its ability to measure itself against the better cricket-playing countries.
That slide toward international irrelevance was slowed somewhat earlier this month in Namibia at the 2023 Cricket World Cup qualifier playoff. Though Canada missed out on advancing and securing a chance to reach October’s International Cricket Council World Cup in India, it did sufficiently well to regain its ODI status for the next four-year qualifying cycle.
And cricket in this country received a further boost Friday with the announcement of Boundaries North, an initiative between Women’s, Emerging, Inclusive and Community (WEIC) Sports, formerly known as Teams Canada, and the sport’s governing body, Cricket Canada. The idea behind the alliance is simple: to help expand the sport by increasing participation, providing pathways for promising players and creating commercial partnerships to boost the sport’s bottom line.
“It’s been a long time coming,” says Rashpal Bajwa, the president of Cricket Canada. “It took us almost two years to come to this point where we could get into this partnership. We are excited. … The time for cricket is now.”
Boundaries North expects participation rates to double in the next 10 years, growing to more than 500,000 players across the country, based on data collected by Cricket Canada, along with government forecasts on immigration and research on Canada sport.
That optimism is partly fuelled by the more than five million Canadians who have immigrated from the world’s top cricket-playing countries. It’s also aided by the country’s record levels of population growth. Canada is currently the fastest-growing country in the G7, and welcomed more than 430,000 international migrants last year.
While Bajwa, who came to Canada from India in 1996, agrees that the sport failed to seize on the momentum it had coming out of the men’s World Cup in 2011, he says he’s seeing the sport become more mainstream. He describes a trip to the bank and seeing a scene of an immigrant father bowling to his son in their backyard play out on one of the TV screens at his local TD Bank branch as proof of its assimilation into our society.
“I think when people like TD and the commercial people who have no link with cricket are showing it, there is an appetite for that right now,” he says. “And they have the demographic of people that are there to support it.”
And that cultural assimilation is something that politicians are wising up to as well.
“You talk to any politician nowadays when he wants votes, he comes to Cricket Canada,” Bajwa says. “So that shows you that there is an appetite for that right now.”
Boundaries North will be leaning on the work that WEIC Sports has done with rugby in this country, with the organization working closely with the Toronto Arrows of Major League Rugby, building player pathways and helping forge commercial partnerships for the sport.
Rahul Srinivasan, the chief commercial officer of the Arrows, is the new chief executive officer for Boundaries North. A former youth cricket player for Canada, Srinivasan knows all too well how a lack of opportunities can leave aspiring players with nowhere to go.
“I have no doubt … that there are really talented youngsters, who are a great batsman, great bowlers,” he says. “How do we build the structure and the foundation so they can excel, focus on cricket and become one day you know, a real household name in Canada, and hopefully a global superstar in the next 10 years?”
Both Bajwa and Srinivasan accept that Canada’s ability to produce its own superstar, such as soccer’s Christine Sinclair or Alphonso Davies, would do wonders for the sport’s growth in Canada. Srinivasan points to the success of Afghan bowler Rashid Khan, who earlier this month became just the fourth player to take a hat trick of wickets in the Indian Premier League, despite hailing from a non-traditional cricketing country.
“When are we going to have our Rashid Khan right, who gets picked by a team in the IPL?”
Both Srinivasan and Bajwa are also optimistic that the partnership with Boundaries North will have an immeasurable effect on women’s cricket in this country, too. The Women’s Premier League in India made global headlines earlier this year for the franchise auction ahead of its inaugural season, with the total cost for the five available franchises reaching US$580-million.
“Cricket for men, obviously, there’s awareness, there is history behind it,” Bajwa says. “But women’s cricket is a very untapped market.
“We can actually go aggressively and make it one of the top nations, we can compete with those big countries very easily and very quickly because we haven’t given that exposure to women’s cricket in Canada.”
Sport in this country has had its Pandora’s Box moment this year, however, and observers are skeptical of third-party involvement with national sports organizations after the trials and tribulations that Canadian Soccer Business has had on that sport, on both the men’s and women’s national teams.
While Srinivasan prefers not to divulge the terms of the financial commitments that have been made to Cricket Canada by Boundaries North, he does accept that announcements such as the one his organization is making now come with greater scrutiny.
“We want to build the sport together. … Boundaries is not simply just an agency where we are selling on behalf of an NSO,” he says. “It truly is a collaborative effort to build assets together.”
Bajwa, the president of Cricket Canada, agrees with this assessment, adding that as a not-for-profit, making a quick buck has never been the main aim for his organization.
Having seen the affect that winning women’s Olympic gold and qualifying for the men’s World Cup have had on soccer in this country, Bajwa’s aims are reaching his sport’s own global showcases and creating the sort of bandwagon that the whole country can jump on board.
“These World Cups are the events where we can showcase what we are doing and these are the things to get people involved and people get excited.”