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Canada’s Curry Connection

They are not nostalgic about mustard fields,nor pumped up about bhangra. The eight Indian-origin players of Canada’s World Cup squad talk about the sport in their country,playing in India and being Canadians first

Written by Shivani Naik | New Delhi |
March 20, 2011 10:41:58 pm

They are not nostalgic about mustard fields,nor pumped up about bhangra. The eight Indian-origin players of Canada’s World Cup squad talk about the sport in their country,playing in India and being Canadians first

They do go crazy over cricket and crave for curry at times,but the eight Indian-origin players in the Canadian cricket team certainly aren’t confused desis. The team’s batting prodigy,Nitish Kumar,has not learnt to mouth the “I love ghar ka khaana” cliché. Nor is the 16-year-old boy with spiked hair,born to Punjabi parents in Canada,pining to visit the mustard fields of his native state,like the movies would have you believe. “Actually,I like butter chicken,but I love having it outside when eating at restaurants,like most of us Canadians do,” he says,staking no claim to the supposed land of birth of the dish.

Kumar might be rated highly by those who’ve seen him play over long periods,but his first memory of cricket is far from a compelling drama of sincerity. “Well,I remember my first practice session in cricket very well. I missed it!” he says of the day his father — whom he later lost to an accident — had readied a junior kit-bag for him,and placed an alarm clock by his bed.

“I was 4 or 5 years old,and I really didn’t want to go train for cricket,so I just overslept,” he chuckles.

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He cuts the Punjabi frills further when he says he detests conversing in his native tongue with Indian-origin players in a team that boasts of seven ethnicities — Indian,Pakistani,Sri Lankan,Canadian,West Indian,Australian and Ugandan. “I’m a Canadian,and it’s good when the whole team can speak in English,” says the Ontario-born,whose batting might need some temperance,but whose mature handling of the multicultural dynamic of his team is beyond his years.

Another unconfused soul in this team is 26-year-old Jimmy Hansra,born in Ludhiana,but living in Vancouver. He roars in amusement at the hint that “Jimmy” might have been an Anglicised name swiftly adopted when he left India as a 14-year-old and became a Canadian citizen. “No,no,no — I was named Jimmy by my grandmother when I was two months old. But then,I needed a formal name in school,so they called me Amabhir,” says the right-hand bat and handy off-break bowler.

Hansra fulfilled the mother of all Indian parents’ dreams. “(I’m an) engineer plus cricketer,” he guffaws. The athletic cricketer played for his Canadian school and college cricket teams even as he pursued instructional engineering. Hansra’s tryst with cricket began in a manner similar to most other Indian-Canadian players. “I was going to the park to play soccer in Vancouver when I saw a group of boys — of mixed ethnicities playing something that looked familiar — cricket. I’d carried a cricket kit from India which had been lying in the store room. I ran home,dusted off my bat and gloves and started,” he says.

When he arrived in India for the World Cup,Hansra’s extended family of 20-odd cousins trooped in to cheer for their relative. The bigger surprise though was how some of his old school friends from Ludhiana had tracked him down on Facebook after seeing the team list,and reached Bangalore to watch their schoolmate play. “I’ve been to north India before,but it’s good to visit with my team,” he says,never once forgetting what he owes to his adopted country,even if his Indian acquaintances shower all the affection on him owing to his status as a Cupper. “I rose through the ranks. Cricket Canada maintains elaborate records of stats and scores of domestic leagues,which are at the selectors’ disposal. Anyone from any corner of Canada can get into the team,if he performs well,” he says.

For a country whose top sports are baseball and ice hockey,and whose weather — just a three-month summer — means a year-round season is near impossible,Canada is trying hard to pitch the game up,with Indians at the forefront. “In the ’60s and ’70s,Canadian cricket was dominated by West Indians and Europeans. Now the majority is Asians,” says Canadian media manager Mike Henry in a drawling Caribbean tone.

This happened gradually over the last decade — also a period when Toronto’s suburb Springdale became ‘Singh’dale,and Malton and Rexdale started teeming with Indians. India’s cultural centre,the Albion Mall,shimmered with saris,jewellery and “pots-n-pans” stores,even as the economically well-off community was packing off its kids to dentistry and engineering colleges. Now,cricket,it seems,is a viable career option too,with the advent of T20,Canada’s qualification for 50-over World Cups,and selection of Indian Canadian Ashish Bagai — whose mother and brother are doctors,and whose father is an investment banker — as captain.

Besides the infusion of Indian pros in the administration,an organised set-up has helped Canadian cricket in recent years. There’s the Toronto Cricket Staking and Curling Club which most ethnic Indians join after showing early promise. Watching and learning is difficult with cricket’s limited television presence,though three 24×7 cricket channels are beaming the World Cup this year. Artificial turfs — Canada has 10 of those — can only help to a certain extent.

Most Indian-origin players in the national team have come through the system in place. Perhaps the sole exception is Balaji Rao whose unfinished business with cricket in India had left him disenchanted eight years ago. The portly leg-break bowler was the joint highest wicket-taker with Venkatapathy Raju 10 years ago,but was dropped from the Tamil Nadu Ranji side — in typical Indian fashion,without being given any reasons.

After his mother was diagnosed with cancer,he had to jump continents to look after her,and it took him long to start thinking again of cricket. “It was very tough. The first three years I didn’t know anyone there,and I started at the Centurions club through an internet contact,where I finished as the top wicket-taker for three years. I still had to wait for the four-year period that’s mandatory before you become eligible to play for Canada,and missed the last World Cup,” he says. Coach Pubudu Dassanayake says he was stunned that Rao had persisted and eventually played the World Cup. “He had a point to prove,” he says,adding that the motivation lent an aggressive edge to his bowling. Things like going from 37 degrees Celsius to -15 degrees and keeping the drive to play alive tend to be appreciated by his immediate family more than those who scoff at his return to cricket in a team of minnows.

Rao,the seasoned pro,believes that the decision of having only 10 teams at the next World Cup and the focus on T20 could endanger his craft of spin bowling. “T20’s not going to teach spinners anything of note. I fear for the future of those growing up in Canada,especially the spinners,” says Rao,who has a day job as an automobile claims insurance professional.

The Gujarati-origin pair of left-arm spinners Parth Desai and Hiral Patel (both U-19 World Cuppers for Canada) can gleefully master their skill and enjoy cricket for the sake of it. While Patel works for a fast-food chain,Desai has taken a semester break from college for the Cup. Cricket is central to their lives in this World Cup period,but both would be keen to play more than just the quadrennial.

Thanks to all his Indian-origin players — Canada’s media man has had to spend pre-match days trying to procure as many tickets as possible — friends and relatives keep trickling in to watch their “own boys”.

What the Indian Canadians share in common with the rest of the squad is memories of the Sahara Cup that Canada hosted in the late ’90s. The Indo-Pak matches influenced an entire generation of Asians to believe that big-time cricket could take off in Canada. It also preceded the bonding that they share in the team now. “Indians and Pakistanis blend well. We mess around with each other,but rag the Australians the most. We always make fun of their ‘yea,mate.’ But we are Team Canada,and as a team,we’re all in it together — Aussies,Pakistanis or Indians,” says Hansra. And they’d cherish nothing more than tripping up the Indian team some day.

They love the bhangra,but the song that gets them all to giggle in a huddle is a typically Canadian ribald song,which they insist is unprintable. They acknowledge the umbilical cord with India,but once broken,they would want nothing more than to chart their own cricket path.

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