Today there are dozens of neighborhoods throughout the city that one cannot stroll through without stumbling across pick-up games and organized matches alike.
It's only 10:30 on a sunny Saturday morning, yet the scene in the middle of the leafy, lakeside park is already intense.
A lanky teenager with a mop of black hair clutches a bat, loosens his sinewy shoulders and peers steely-eyed toward another boy rushing toward him. The running boy sneers as he picks up speed, ball in hand.
A group of older men at a nearby picnic table turn to watch.
The boy with the bat bites his lower lip and waits until the last possible moment before unleashing a violent blur of twisting limbs.
The men at the table jerk their heads skyward, mouths agape, and watch the ball that an instant ago was hurtling towards the batsman soar through the air, then smack against the trunk of a willow tree, roll past a gaggle of joggers and nestle itself near some driftwood on the sandy beach.
The power hitter with the thick black hair smiles triumphantly.
It’s not a monster homerun. It’s a big six. And this isn’t Mumbai or Melbourne.
It’s Toronto, the newest global cricket hotspot.
As Toronto finally emerges from one of the most brutally cold winters on record, athletes brimming with enthusiasm have begun to descend on half-thawed baseball diamonds and soccer fields to play one of Canada’s most important sports: cricket.
You read that correctly.
Though hockey — along with maple syrup and Justin Bieber — is still Canada’s chief cultural export, cricket over the past decade has become Canada’s fastest growing sport, and nowhere in the country is it more popular than in Toronto.
Whereas a generation ago, gung-ho cricketers would be hard-pressed to find a club able to field a full team, today there are dozens of neighborhoods throughout the city that one cannot stroll through without stumbling across pick-up games and organized matches alike.
Tapinder Singh, president of the Toronto District Cricket Club, says that there are more than 20,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) that play cricket in school or in a community league.
“Cricket has absolutely taken off in Toronto. There are dozens and dozens of teams for males and females, adults and children…. It’s growing faster here than anywhere else in North America,” said Singh, an immigrant from the state of Punjab in India.
“There has been a huge penetration into the schools, and the only thing that is preventing the sport from growing even faster is the lack of facilities,” Singh added. “When the local political establishment realizes the demand, the sky is the limit. Cricket will be a household name.”
Praim Persaud, president of the Cricket Council of Ontario, the sport’s provincial governing body, said that immigration from cricket-playing nations is fueling the growth of cricket in Toronto.
“There are so many people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean that want to play cricket here in Canada. The city of Toronto is very diverse, and that impacts sports,” explained Persaud, himself an immigrant from the cricket-loving West Indies.
“Toronto cricket is really a reflection of the city.”
Toronto’s Changing Face
The shift in Toronto’s sporting landscape can, indeed, be attributed to radical demographic changes over the past generation.
Forty years ago, the overwhelming majority of immigrants to Canada were from Britain and Western Europe. Reform ushered in by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1976, however, liberalized Canada’s restrictive, Anglophile immigration policy.
The Indian subcontinent quickly emerged as a leading source of immigration to Canada — and mercifully shattered Toronto’s Waspy, puritan identity.
Today, half of Toronto’s residents are visible minorities, according to Statistics Canada. In neighboring suburbs Mississauga and Brampton, minorities represent 54 percent and 66 percent of the respective populations. In nearby Markham, the number skyrockets to 72 percent.
Members of the South Asian community are the biggest minority group in the Greater Toronto Area. There were more than 700,000 South Asians, according to the 2011 census, a couple of hundred thousand more than the area’s ethnic Chinese community.
Those numbers are expected to nearly triple by 2031, reaching approximately 2.1 million. By that time, according to a Statistics Canada report, nearly one in four people in the Toronto area will be of South Asian descent.
“The Indian community in the Toronto area is quite large and quite vibrant. It’s certainly one of the most prosperous in the GTA,” said Kalyan Sundaram of the Canada India Foundation, a Toronto-based organization designed to strengthen the cultural and economic relationship between Canada and India.
Citing a growing interest in Indian literature, food and, of course, Bollywood’s enormous appeal, Sundaram said that, “Indian culture has made significant headway into the Canadian mainstream.
“The impact of Indian culture is undeniable, and that impact is continuing with cricket. Cricket is truly an international experience in Toronto, and much of that is due to the thriving South Asian community.”
Toronto’s Sporting Past and Present
Though cricket’s popularity in Toronto is reaching fever pitch in many of its minority communities, no ground in the city that meets the International Cricket Council’s professional standards.
A popular city councilor has tried to win support for a new stadium, but the idea of committing tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to a sport which they might only be passingly familiar with hasn’t — perhaps unsurprisingly — gained much of a toehold with municipal and provincial politicians.
The popular belief among the political and sporting establishment is that Toronto just isn’t a cricket town. It’s the center of the hockey world, of course, and baseball has long been a staple of the city’s sporting diet. But cricket? The decision-making class has only recently come around to embracing the city’s professional soccer side, Toronto FC, and the Raptors NBA basketball team. Adding cricket to the mix might be too much too soon for the powers-that-be in City Hall.
But 20 years ago, few would have considered Toronto a basketball town, either. I remember as a child watching Raptors broadcasts on television and between stoppages in play, an animated version of the team’s then-mascot, Dino, gave viewers earnest tutorials on some of the sport’s basic terms, like “slam dunk” and “beyond the arc” (I recall my 14-year-old self feeling intensely embarrassed that my city had to be patiently taught by a bright purple dinosaur with a small-town accent about a rare and beautiful play called an alley-oop!).
Since the mid-90s, though, there has been a Canadian MVP and a number of Canadians have been drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. Today, there are a bevvy of up and coming Canadian basketball stars in the league, the majority of them from the Toronto area.
It begs the question: if basketball can grow that quickly over a 20-year stretch, imagine how fast cricket can grow when so many young people are already fully engrossed in the game?
The impact that cricket-playing youth has had on organized sport is plain to see in Peel, the region immediately west of Toronto that comprises the city’s populous, immigrant-laden suburbs like Mississauga and Brampton.
Much of the Greater Toronto Indian community live in Peel, and its cultural footprint has fundamentally reshaped extracurricular sports in the area; cricket, once a fringe activity that struggled to gain traction has grown to the point that it now rivals baseball and hockey in terms of student participation rates, according to Paul Freier, principal at T. L. Kennedy Secondary School in Mississauga, and chair of the Region of Peel Secondary Sports Association.
“There are about 500 kids playing on 47 teams. It was once a varsity sport, but because of its broad base of support throughout Peel, schools now have junior and senior teams. And we’re really happy with its growth with girls. So many of our students are from outside of Canada…. There’s no shortage of students that want to play,” said Freier.
Toronto’s Sporting Future
On a warm, overcast Tuesday afternoon in May, a small group of middle school students playfully practice their batting and bowling in a parking lot near Toronto’s foremost Little India.
It’s a quintessentially Canadian scene; one of the boys wears a shirt bearing the name of Sidney Crosby, the star player for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Another sports a Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap.
It’s doubtful, though, that these boys dream of being the next Crosby or Buster Posey. More likely they fancy themselves the next Rohit Sharma or Ravichandran Ashwin.
And growing up in today’s Toronto, they just might be right.