Ottawa cricket fans make pitch for new places to play

The city is consulting residents on a plan to revamp its parks and recreation facilities, including two new cricket pitches. Cricket enthusiasts, especially Ottawa's South Asian communities, are thrilled.

City pondering 2 new cricket grounds as part of parks revamp

Akber Hussain and his children play cricket in their west Ottawa backyard on May 24, 2021. With the sport growing in popularity across Ontario, Hussain is calling for more cricket grounds to be built in the nation's capital. (Felix Desroches/CBC)

When you think of sports in Canada's capital, you're likely to think of hockey. Maybe football. But another game is literally gaining ground in Ottawa.

On Wednesday, the city embarked on a second round of consultations on a plan to revamp its parks and recreation facilities, including two new cricket pitches. Cricket enthusiasts, especially Ottawa's South Asian communities, are thrilled.

Akber Hussain grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, a megacity known to produce some of cricket's tallest legends. When he moved to Canada in 1996, he kept his love of the game alive, and has now passed cricket culture on to his children.

"I grew up watching and playing cricket. I want the same for my kids. If they get facilities, I'm sure they will be able to play good cricket," he said. 

But Hussain and his family live west of Kanata, with no cricket ground close to home.

"I have to go all the way downtown to be able to play a game. The nearest facility is at Rideau Hall, but it is only available for a limited period of time because it's on the Governor General's premises," he said.

Immigration fuelled passion for game in Canada

The first recorded game of cricket in South Asia was played among British sailors on India's west coast in 1721. In 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, but cricket remained a shared obsession for the people of both countries.

South Asian immigrants brought their love of the game with them to Canada. While Toronto and Peel are known as centres of cricket in Canada, the game has gained traction in other parts of the province including Ottawa.

As the immigrant population in Ottawa has swelled in recent years, so has demand for cricket.

"When I came here in 2003, I didn't even know Ottawa had cricket, and now it's one of the fastest-growing sports in the city," said Mayank Sharma, a member of the board of directors at Cricket Ontario. 

'I grew up watching and playing cricket. I want the same for my kids,' Hussain said. (Felix Desroches)

Ottawa falling for 'gentleman's game'

Shah Zafar, president of Cricket Ontario, said Ottawa is now joining a growing list of cities that have fallen in love with the "gentleman's game."

"I came here 48 years ago. Back then, I never envisioned that cricket would be played in Thunder Bay or Timmins," Zafar said. "There was a cricket boom [in Canada] in the early 2000s, followed by a lull. But there has been a revival in the last six years or so. Many young kids coming from India and Pakistan are here on study permits. They work during the summer and play on the weekends. Cricket comes naturally for them, and they are desperate to find facilities."

When Zafar took over as president of Cricket Ontario, there were 436 competitive teams in the province. In 2019, the last time competitive cricket was played in Canada before the pandemic brought it to a halt, the number stood at 518. By the end of 2021, Zafar expects the number to be well above 600. 

Growing the sport

In 2016, Ottawa got its own cricket league. The Ottawa Premier League follows the "T-20" format, the shortest format of the game.

But even as the sport grows in popularity, this city's cricket enthusiasts find little space to play.

"Ottawa has around 40 teams but only six grounds," Sharma said. "There are many [neighbourhoods] where there are South Asian or Caribbean communities, but no cricket grounds."

Cricket isn't a cheap game to play without support from the city. Curating a pitch is a full-time job: the grounds have to be maintained and dressing rooms need to be set up for league cricket. Cricketers in Ottawa have had to improvise by sharing grounds with soccer teams.

But Cricket Ontario believes the game has a bright future here, with plans to promote cricket in schools and include everyone in the sport.

"My daughter asked me why girls don't play much cricket," Sharma said. "She had a good point. So at the school level, we want to promote cricket for both boys and girls."