Cricket is on the rise in Canada.
Once considered a niche sport in the country, the centuries-old game is quickly growing in popularity from coast to coast.
According to Statistics Canada, 500,000 immigrants arrived in Canada from countries where cricket is the national sport or has national representation between 2015-2020, paving the way for a cricket explosion.
A testament to the sport’s growth is the return of the Global T20 Canada tournament, a prestigious event that has attracted several international cricket stars to share the stage with Canada’s top talent.
Legendary Pakistani all-rounder Shoaib Malik is back for his second GT20 Canada tournament, suiting up for the newly established Mississauga Panthers as one of the league’s marquee players.
“It feels great,” Malik told CBC Sports. “Last time I was here in 2019, I was looking forward to playing the next season as well. But unfortunately, COVID came in and everything went down.”
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The inaugural edition of the tournament was in 2018. Malik saw the potential for cricket’s development in Canada during the 2019 tournament, something he wants to help move forward. He said growing the sport in Canada is not only important to him, it is the reason he is here.
The 41-year-old opted to miss Pakistan’s two-test series against Sri Lanka this month in order to compete for the Panthers, with an aim to help Canadian cricketers.
“This is why I’ve decided to come here, because I was here in 2019 and I saw a lot of potential in the country,” Malik told CBC Sports. “The country wants to improve in cricket as well, so this is why I’m here.
“And like me, there are other cricketers from all over the world, big names, they are also part of the league. This is the goal, to pass on the experience which we have learned over the years.”
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Six teams are vying for the championship title, with 25 matches taking place at the TD Cricket Arena in Brampton, Ont., through Aug. 6th. Along with Mississauga, the league is made up of the Montreal Tigers, Toronto Nationals, Vancouver Knights, Brampton Wolves and Surrey Jaguars.
Following 21 group stage matches, the top four teams will advance to the playoffs, culminating in the championship match on Aug. 6.
Other marquee players taking part in GT20 Canada are Harbhajan Singh (Brampton), Andre Russell (Montreal) Shahid Afridi (Toronto) and Chris Gayle (Mississauga).
Malik’s impressive career spans over two decades, having made his international debut in 1999. A talented batsman and bowler, Malik served as captain of Pakistan’s national team. To put his popularity in perspective, Malik has 2.1 million followers on Instagram.
‘Dream come true’
Cricket Canada president Rashpal Bajwa said the opportunity for young Canadian players to play alongside some of the game’s greats will have a long-lasting effect.
“That’s a dream come true for these guys,” Bajwa said. “From a North American perspective, if a young guy got an opportunity to play with Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, that’s the stature I would put it at.
Bajwa said the players had a very positive experience competing alongside Malik in 2019, who was then a member of the Knights. He led the team to the final, where they lost to the Winnipeg Hawks.
“For him to agree to come to Canada for the second time shows that he loved the country, and Canadians love him too, so we wanted him back in Canada,” Bajwa said. “This is a great opportunity for the youngsters to learn something from him.”
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More than 80 per cent of the players drafted and participating in this year’s tournament are of South Asian descent. Malik and other stars descending on Brampton are household names in South Asian households across Canada, making it just as exciting for the fans.
While Malik grew up in a part of the world where, as he puts it, “cricket is like a religion”, he knows the pieces are in place for Canada to also become a recognized cricket power on the international stage someday.
“I think it’s growing day by day, but I still remember Canada’s national team used to participate in World Cups, and this hasn’t been happening in the last couple of World Cups. The potential and talent, everything is there, it’s just about providing opportunity consistently to Canadian players,” Malik said.
‘Alive and thriving in Canada’
The makeup of Canada’s national cricket team reflects the country’s multicultural diversity, with players from all different backgrounds. Bajwa said the GT20 Canada tournament will have an impact beyond the pitch for Canadian immigrants.
“The Canadian team has players from all over the world. We have Australians, we have Caribbean guys, we have Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans. The composition of our team shows that this sport is vastly appreciated and loved by the people that immigrate to Canada,” Bajwa said.
Malik hopes to participate in future editions of the tournament, saying he would also like to take on an expanded role to help off the pitch as well.
“I would love to come back and play cricket and help the youngsters as well, and to even guide the organizers how to bring more opportunities to the table for the players,” Malik said.
There are 36 Canadian players competing in Brampton, giving them a chance to shine alongside their cricket heroes in front of a global audience in the hundreds millions.
“In 2019 I played against and alongside with a lot of the Canadian players. They all have potential; they all have talent. They’re getting another opportunity, so make the most of it,” Malik said.
Watch live coverage of ever GT20 Canada match on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem. The championship final will also be broadcast live on CBC TV.