TORONTO, Apr 20: Cricket, once as Canadian as maple syrup, is making an overdue comeback.
''Cricket was the national game of Canada in the past and I predict that it will be again,'' said the Canadian Cricket Association's (CCA) first vice-president Howard Petrook.
''The cricket-playing community in Canada is growing so rapidly that as demographics change Canada cricket is going to become more and more important,'' he said in an interview at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club.
''Cricket is the fastest-growing sport in Canadian schools. There are literally scores and scores of schools playing cricket.'' Although this news may surprise ice hockey fans, cricket has a long history in Canada. There are references to matches being played near Montreal more than 200 years ago while the Toronto Cricket Club was established in 1827 and the Canadian Cricket Association was formed in 1892.
The next 12 months could prove the most important period in Canadian cricket's existence. Canada, as an associate member of the sport's governing body the International Cricket Council (ICC), has gained coveted One-Day International (ODI) match status, appointed a new team coach and begun preparations for next year's World Cup in the Caribbean.
Elevation to ODI status will mean Canada play more international games in an already busy season, explained Petrook, who added that the country had only one ODI-rated ground but was working with the ICC to certify more.
Another challenge will be the extra demands made on the amateur team. ''If you were playing for Canada last year you would have needed 40 days off work. In the next 12 months, I estimate it will be 60 days.'' One change that is likely to be a big boost is the year-long appointment of England under-19 team head Andy Pick as Canada's coach. With 11 months until the World Cup, Pick's sabbatical from his job with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) seems to have come at the right time for Canada.
''I think there is a lot of keen anticipation,'' said Petrook about Pick's appointment. ''We were looking for someone who has the knowledge, the expertise and the technical ability.'' Former Nottinghamshire bowler Pick was due to fly to Toronto on Sunday with his wife Jennie and 12-year-old ice-hockey-playing son Greg, to take up the only full-time, salaried role in Canadian cricket.
''I was pleased to get the job and I'm looking forward to the challenge for sure,'' said Pick speaking from England in a telephone interview before his departure.
''I've got a stack of ideas which I'd like to implement and I'm sure that when I get there I'm going to be told that quite a few of them aren't feasible, due to the geography of the country, due to finance. I'm going over there with a wish list of things I'd like to do.'' Pick said that over and above guiding Canada through a busy schedule of one-day internationals, he would also be looking to introduce ''systems and pathways'' for coach education, examining ways to develop teenage players through to the national side and focusing on improving playing surfaces -- all things he believes could help to drive Canada to the next World Cup qualification competition in 2009.
Pick said he might choose to coach Canada for longer than the initial year's contract.
''It would come down to the fact that if I was offered a longer-term contract and we were having a good time in Canada then I would have to make a decision to give up my job at the ECB and we'd go from there. As it stands at the moment it (the contract) is a year.'' Pick's knowledge is likely to prove invaluable for the World Cup as Canada face England, New Zealand and Kenya in their group.
Canada hope to improve on their first visit to the World Cup in 2003, when the team's highlight was a 60-run victory over Bangladesh in Durban, South Africa.
''The way I'm looking at it at the moment and the impression that I'm getting from the people in Canada is that I think the World Cup is the icing on the cake and I think that realistically we go to the World Cup in the hope of putting on a good performance against England and New Zealand -- and hopefully beating Kenya,'' said Pick.
Pick said he would not be measuring Canadian success on a victory against England, calling it ''not hugely important in the bigger scheme of things''.
''If we were to beat England in the World Cup that would be fantastic but were we then not to qualify for the next World Cup and lose ICC funding, that would have a far more dramatic effect on Canadian cricket,'' he said.