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In Northern Ontario Cricket is more than a game

Cricket by Vectorstall from the Noun Project

Many Canadian readers may avoid this article simply because they are not familiar with Cricket as a sport. No worries. My story follows a philosophy iterated by a member of the now-defunct Sudbury Cricket Club. When interviewed on the club’s strategy for growing the sport: “They’ll hit first and when they feel comfortable hitting the ball, then we’ll tell them the rules and regulations.”

Mention of any of the sport’s by-laws or concepts will be avoided except where absolutely necessary to further the story. When that time comes, expect an explanation that straddles the fine line between sufficient information and moderate patronization.

Now, let’s get the bat in your hands.

Though this is a Cricket story, it is even more a story about how the Sudbury sports community might become a more diverse and welcoming place.

The Sudbury Cricket Club was launched in 2009 by several immigrants, all looking for a way to play a game they were incredibly passionate about. It’s not clear who made up the majority of the club, but based on the current demographics of Cricket clubs in Northern Ontario, the composition is most likely a mix of newcomers to Canada/Sudbury and international students. Their history is inferred only from a smallish collection of old newspapers and web articles. Due to the lack of proper grounds, club games and practices were relegated to baseball diamonds and the like.

(Side note #1: the improper pitch meant the SCC had to play with a ‘softball’ rather than the hardball, the traditional sphere used for playing cricket. There is no standard softball for cricket, any ball could stand in place of a hardball as long as it had a seam and could bounce on whatever surface you were playing on. A youth Cricket coach’s blog even suggests using a tennis ball wrapped with electrical tape along the diameter. However, this is somewhat akin to wanting to play ice hockey and settling for ball hockey.)

During the summers, the Club usually held tournaments at West Elm Playground. In the winter, however, they had to resort to some interesting locales if they got an off-season Cricket itch.

In 2011, the Northern Ontario Cricket Council, the governing body of the Sudbury Cricket Club, came across a new Cricket pitch in Minnow Lake. In association with the Rotary Club of Sudbury and the India/Canada Friendship Association, the groups would stage an Ice Cricket tournament to raise money for a charity called Project Kandwar, a vocational school in the area.

Ice Cricket has been played since the late 80’s and sticks to the main rules of Cricket, with a few adaptations for the alternate climate. First, roster sizes are shrunk from the normal 11 down to 6; next, a special soft non-white ball is used considering the playing area, and finally, according to Wikipedia, if you strike a skater, an extra 6 runs are added - though there is no verification of this.

In January of that year, participants cleared a sizable patch of the Minnow Lake ice surface, placed a roll-out wicket in the middle and had quite a time. The teams were nationally based, with the tournament theme being India All-Stars vs International squads. The NOCC donated $2,000 to the Rotary Club for the vocational school’s construction.

(Side note #2: the wicket is the lane that the bowler/thrower pitches on, and the same areas the batters run. It is also the name for the wooden contraption behind the batters. Context clues are useful in knowing which is being talked about. In times when a suitable hard surface is not available, a carpet-like wicket can be used, however, that also means a softball will be used.)

One year later almost to the date, the second iteration of what was dubbed the International Ice Cricket Challenge was played out, this time on Ramsey Lake. Again, it was the India All-Stars vs. International Teams who battled it out in the name of Project Kandwar.

Unfortunately, this tournament, formed around the tenets of community building and charity appears to be the end of the Sudbury Cricket Club story. There is no evidence that a 2013 tournament was held, and neither the NOCC nor the SCC no longer have operating websites or emails.

During this era another venue that often served as a substitute for a real pitch, especially in the off-season, was the gymnasium of Cambrian College. For a number of years, international students aided by enthusiastic administrators have hosted and also travelled to participate in indoor Cricket tournaments. These tournaments have featured other colleges across Ontario: Fleming, Georgian, Humber, Centennial, Fanshawe, George Brown to name a few.

Those students were not the first in the city to try their hand at indoor Cricket. In a November 1998 edition of Le Voyageur, there was a community notice for an indoor league that would play out of the Exhibition Centre. The brief also made it known that anyone was allowed to participate.

References to Cricket appear in old Sudbury newspapers, from the 1970s to the present, but only a handful of times. Normally, this might include the promotion of a summer sports camp for children. Actual tournaments/leagues such as the SCC or mentions of indoor cricket were even more scarcely noted.

The late Frank Pagnucco was able to date the origin of Cricket in Sudbury back to 1906, prior to either of the World Wars, back when the city was a town. Those original Sudbury Cricket Club members often mirrored their uniforms: all-white.

Though there is history of the sport in Sudbury and a general awareness of it by the modern public, the biggest missing component allowing cricket to enjoy an enduring legacy is the lack of a permanent Cricket club, one that is/was well supported by the city and local partisans.

“We started in 2013 and got fully registered by 2014, and the last two years, before the pandemic, we really got everything growing. It’s our passion; we want to take the game to the next level.” These are the words of Tarang Ingle, president of the Big Nickel Cricket Club.

The BNCC is/could be the missing component.

“Last year, we had three teams ready to play,” said Ingle, acknowledging a group of roughly 30-36 athletes officially registered to play. Their competitive arm, the Sudbury Warriors, compete in the Northern Ontario Cricket League, facing entries from North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins. The League has maintained itself since 2016, with each of the clubs all growing in numbers.

“It’s very very different from Southern Ontario, which basically has Cricket leagues and academies and clubs, pre-established ones, because of the established structure that is there and the social structure that is already there,” says Dr. Anahit Armenakyan, Associate Professor at Nipissing University’s School of Business.

“Northern Ontario retention rates for Cricket are pretty slim.”

“I think it has potential if the profile of Cricket is elevated across Northern Ontario. Right now, it seems to be a pretty much immigrant sport; we need more long-term citizens to catch on,” suggested Dr. Natalya Brown, also an Associate Professor at Nipissing University’s School of Business.

Dr. Armenakyan and Dr. Brown co-authored a research paper titled Cricket in the North: The Impact of Sports Participation and Sponsorship on Immigrant Social Inclusion and Fostering Welcoming Communities. They were interested in how sports can help build stronger immigrant communities in Northern Ontario.

“The idea with Cricket is, here’s something that the newcomer would be bringing to the community instead of trying to integrate into the community,” said Dr. Brown. “Unlike soccer, for example … Cricket is a sport where a newcomer would be the expert.” They unfortunately did not get much data from Sudbury, but their conclusions offer a good parallel to where the Big Nickel Cricket Club sits today.

So, what did Dr. Armenakyan and Dr. Brown find?

Well, through surveys and interviews with players, coaches and organizers, a few key ingredients creating a solid Cricket salad emerged. It all has to do with using a bottom-up approach to increase the retention rate in the Northern Ontario Cricket communities.

(Side note #3: Cricket, the sport, not the animal - it’s a metaphor.)

Part of that is increasing immigrant retention rates, in general. If newcomers cannot build roots here, they will search for a place they can. “Northern Ontario has a slight retention issue,” said Dr Brown. “When immigrants come here, typically, they’ll have a family. One person has a job and if they can’t find adequate housing or employment for the spouse, they might leave the city.”

“That’s kind of a common story.”

As Dr. Armenakyan mentioned earlier, there is a disparity between the development of immigrant communities in Northern and Southern Ontario. The geography of the North makes it such that everything is fewer and farther apart. In Toronto, the distance between Cricket pitches can be shorter than the length of the Bell Park boardwalk.

Though there is more to addressing the retention rate than having a strong Cricket club, the authors found evidence that when newcomers can play Cricket, it helps with their sense of social inclusion and can make them feel like they increased their social capital.

Furthermore, a large portion of these Cricket clubs are often students. “Most of the team are International students …11 or 12 are full citizens,” Ingle said of the makeup of the BNCC. As the doctors found as well, these international students face their own set of dilemmas.

First, since their time in Canada is limited, International students tend to want to go and see other places, be exposed to Canadian culture. In that sense, doing the very same thing they would be doing in their native land kind of defeats the purpose. However, as Dr. Armenakyan speculates, they also want to engage in something that interests them, so they don’t feel completely isolated.

The study found potential evidence that the NOCL offers some of the latter. Because of the extended travel between fields of play, International students were able to make connections and friendships with the other players, while also taking the time to see other communities in Ontario.

A second dilemma is equipment.

“Cricket is not a cheap sport: you need padding, you need a bat, you need a wicket, and in Northern Ontario, you probably need one of those carpet roll-out pitches,” said Brown. But, thanks to increasing awareness, this hurdle may have been overcome. “The students coming here to study are actually bringing their Cricket equipment to play,” noted Ingle.

As President of the local Club, he is understandably excited to get the team back together and playing once more, post COVID. “We are waiting for step 2 opening, then we are good to play,” he mentioned. When that does happen, the Club will play on their dedicated field with an AstroTurf wicket at the de-facto Capreol Cricket ground, a luxury that a few Northern teams ever enjoyed.

It might not be quite luxury for the likes of the English lords, with a track running through it, cement shot-put semi-circle and boulders on one side, marking where the field ends and the road begins.

(Side note #4 - for non-Cricket readers: if you’ve ever pictured Englishmen playing Cricket in all-white while the spectators drink tea, the contest offering a mid-game spot of tea for the participants as well, then the Lord’s Cricket Ground would be the venue you are conjuring up, complete with this type of shenaniganry.)

While these unique obstacles bordering on safety hazards are not great, the wicket itself is far more than just suitable. The Capreol wicket, made of crushed dust and clay as a foundation with an AstroTurf top, allows for the use of a hardball. “The motto of our club is to play with a hardball,” Ingle stated. The whole point of the BNCC was to promote professional Cricket with the hardball in Sudbury. You cannot start an ice hockey league by playing ball hockey.

“If Northern Ontario wants certain types of immigrants invited then there should be more investment in what is interesting for these communities,” Dr. Armenakyan suggested. That is exactly what the City of Greater Sudbury did.

“It took seven to eight months to convince the city that we really needed it, but we put together a proposal and they agreed,” said Ingle of the process. When the BNCC first approached the City, they were given many different potential fields - but Capreol was the only one that could be fully dedicated to Cricket. “They showed us Capreol, and we agreed to that because we wanted a dedicated ground to put in the AstroTurf, which we wanted from the beginning” Ingle said.

Once word got out that there was a proper hardball pitch and a team, League registration numbers have gone up, even though the field is in Capreol, a thirty-minute drive for many of the inner-city residents. Ingle, for his part, does not see this as a negative.

“The advantage of being in Capreol is that it’s a small town and people want to develop those small towns. It’s a challenge to grow the game - not everyone knows this game - but now, even the locals come to sit, enjoy and learn about the game.”

The City’s investment seems to have paid off and they are open to making a larger one. Prior to COVID, the BNCC and the municipal government were in talks to put up flood lights so games could be played at night; however, funding dried up because of the Pandemic.

With or without the flood lights, the Big Nickel Cricket Club will spread the light of Cricket to the rest of Sudbury. “We did a couple of training sessions in schools before everything closed down for the kids to know what this game is about,” said the BNCC president. They plan to run more of these sessions once everything opens back up.

There seems to be a Cricket-pitch-shaped growth cycle occurring, one that continually solves the barriers to setting up a strong and permanent Cricket club. That founding goal of playing Cricket with a hardball in Sudbury led to a dedicated field, a competitive team in the NOCL, addressing some of the dilemmas faced by international students, and promoting a higher general interest in the sport.

If you liked swinging the bat, as a child, maybe the next step is to watch the sport online, perhaps even attending one of the Sudbury Warriors’ outings. After all, the bat is in your hands.


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