Cricket is booming in Canada.
Once considered a niche sport in the country, the centuries-old game is rapidly 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 and 2020, paving the way for an explosion of cricket.
A testament to the growth of the sport is the return of the Global T20 Canada tournament, a prestigious event that has attracted a number of 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, outfitting the newly established Mississauga Panthers as one of the league’s standout players.
“It feels great,” Malik told CBC Sports. “Last time I was here in 2019, I was hoping to play next season as well. But unfortunately, COVID hit and everything fell apart.”
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The inaugural edition of the tournament was in 2018. Malik saw the potential for development of cricket in Canada during the 2019 tournament, something he wants to help move forward. He said growing the sport in Canada isn’t just important to him, it’s the reason he’s here.
The 41-year-old opted to miss Pakistan’s two-Test series against Sri Lanka this month to compete for the Panthers, with the aim of helping Canadian cricketers.
“That’s why I 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 also wants to get better at cricket, that’s 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 we have learned over the years.”
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Six teams compete for the championship title, with 25 matches at the TD Cricket Arena in Brampton, Ontario, through August 6. Along with Mississauga, the league is made up of the Montreal Tigers, Toronto Nationals, Vancouver Knights, Brampton Wolves, and Surrey Jaguars.
After 21 group stage games, the top four teams will advance to the playoffs, culminating in the championship game on August 6.
Other notable players participating in GT20 Canada include 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 the Pakistan national team. To put his popularity in perspective, Malik has 2.1 million followers on Instagram.
‘A 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 lasting effect.
“That’s a dream come true for these guys,” Bajwa said. “From an American perspective, if a young guy had a chance to play with Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, that’s the level he would put him 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.
“That he agreed 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 young people to learn something from him.”
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More than 80 percent of the players recruited and participating in this year’s tournament are of South Asian descent. Malik and other stars who are descended from Brampton are household names in South Asian households across Canada, making it just as exciting for 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 become a recognized cricketing powerhouse on the international stage one day as well. .
“I think it’s growing day by day, but I still remember that the Canadian national team used to participate in World Cups, and this hasn’t been happening in the last two World Cups. The potential and the talent, it’s all there, it’s just about consistently providing opportunities to Canadian players,” Malik said.
‘Alive and prosperous in Canada’
The composition of the Canada national cricket team reflects the multicultural diversity of the country, with players from all 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, Caribbeans, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans. The composition of our team shows that this sport is highly appreciated and loved by people who immigrate to Canada,” Bajwa said.
Malik looks forward to participating in future editions of the tournament and says he would also like to take on a larger role to help off the pitch as well.
“I would love to come back and play cricket and help the youngsters too, and even guide the organizers on how to bring more opportunities to the table for the players,” Malik said.
There are 36 Canadian players competing in Brampton, giving them the chance to shine alongside their cricketing heroes in front of a global audience of hundreds of millions.
“In 2019 I played against and alongside a lot of Canadian players. They all have potential, they all have talent. They’re getting another chance, so make the most of it,” Malik said.
Watch live coverage of every GT20 Canada game on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem. The championship final will also be broadcast live on CBC TV.