x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Participating purely for the love of the game of cricket

Osman Samiuddin talks to the cricketers willing to go out of their way, even using their holiday time, to the play sport.

Despite being a marketing consultant and a student, Azurdeen Mohammed still finds time to play cricket for the United States.
Despite being a marketing consultant and a student, Azurdeen Mohammed still finds time to play cricket for the United States.

It is not just that Andy - or Azurdeen, to be formal - Mohammed's name stands out. If Ramnaresh Sarwan were younger, a little shinier, he could conceivably look like Mohammed, who was born in Trinidad but raised, like Sarwan, in Guyana.

It is also that Mohammed is studying criminal justice in New York and working as a marketing consultant.

And for two weeks last month, he was representing the United States in the International Cricket Council's (ICC) World Twenty20 Qualifier, staged across the UAE.

"Criminal justice is not that hard, not as hard as chemistry," he concluded, on thin ice admittedly. "It's definitely not harder than cricket. In this, the travelling is tough. Playing cricket is great, but being away from the family is the toughest thing."

Mohammed moved to Florida when he was 11, and then to New York where he has been since. Cricket came as migration's baggage. "It's not easy in the US [to play cricket]," he said, sounding older than 21.

"Everyone goes there for an education, to make money, for a comfortable life. So, if you love the sport, you have to put [the effort] in. When I came to the US I didn't expect to play cricket at all, I thought that was done for me. Then I saw in New York they have over 180 teams and five leagues."

Cricket's associate and affiliate nations - such as the US and 15 other countries that took part in the qualifiers - are, on paper, the vast new frontiers cricket uses to prove it is a global sport.

Thirty-six associates and 59 affiliates (yes, Vanuatu does have a cricket team, just like Malta and Peru), added to the 10 in the big leagues means, on paper, the ICC can say more than 100 countries around the globe play the game.

Although it has always lay unasked in the background, the question whether these countries can ever move up to the big stage, to full membership - where the bigger money is - has become urgent in recent years.

Countries such as Ireland, even Afghanistan are leading this debate, easily the best sides at this level. Currently their existence is primarily geared to qualify for the big tournaments, as they did in the UAE for the World Twenty20.

But what the two weeks also proved, and this is a genuinely pleasing discovery (or rediscovery because the realisation lies at the centre of sport) is that they exist for their own sake: because there are many, many people who simply want to play cricket.

Countries such as Ireland, Afghanistan, Canada and Scotland have full-time cricketers, even hardened professionals.

But the vast majority of the rest are like Mohammed, not in detail, but desire.

Hemanth Jayasena, Italy's veteran leg-spinner for example, moved to Bologna in Italy from Punadura near Colombo in 1992 to play cricket and work at a factory.

He works five days a week before playing local division games on Sunday.

"We have to travel to Rome, or Milan and the distance is sometimes 300 to 400km. We go by bus in the morning, play, then come back the same day. It's difficult but we do it."

Or there is Usman Shuja, born in Pakistan and pursuing the American dream (some might snipe it is the Pakistani dream), having moved to the US for further education and better job prospects.

He did that: "I'm a management consultant and work 70 to 80 hours a week. I've taken what leave I've got left for this. I could be doing worse things."

The USA could probably open a consultancy on the side, given there are three other consultants in their squad.

Freddie Klokker, Denmark's best player, has the perfect words for it. "Most of our cricketers are not even part-time cricketers. They are full-time workers, who go to work, train twice a week, go to work, play on weekends. It's a hobby."

Klokker is, unlike many others at this level, born and bred in the country he represents. He picked up the game from his father (who lived next to the chairman of a local club) and has since progressed an entire galaxy beyond any other Danish player.

He was an MCC young cricketer, has played for county sides in England and was part of the Bangladesh Premier League recently. And by trade, he is actually a groundsman.

"These guys are on holiday," he said. "They take time off work. It's not like the Danish cricket board can hire them as cricketers.

"They take holiday from their studies. Guys are prolonging their studies by half a year, a year to come for two weeks here. It's purely for the love of the game and that's what we are dealing with."

These are not men engaged in some heroic struggle to play; the closest any of the teams come to that are probably Afghanistan who have gone through serious strife to put together a side.

But for them to be here, to be international sportsmen and regular men is a more mundane triumph, the little ones we win against life every day.

All sportsmen love their sport, but this is of an undemanding, unrequited kind: it is especially evident in their step on the field, so that even when they lose, they are never defeated.

And even if you do happen to be from a set-up which can afford to have and pay full-time cricketers, it is not exactly the easy life.

Canada, among the oldest associate nations, have recently put some of their players on central contracts.

"It definitely makes a lot of difference," said Rizwan Cheema, their captain.

"When you have only cricket, then it is totally different to when you come back from a day at work to play. But it's not very easy, it's only the passion that keeps you going to get to that stage in the first place.

"If you don't have the passion then there is no point. You won't be a cricketer because you might not do anything and at the end of the day, if you don't continue your job or studies and do this, you may have nothing left."

Now, the gulf between teams such as Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and Afghanistan and the rest is becoming bigger. Even in this world, essentially of the have-nots, inequality is growing.

"Canada have central contracts, they've just gone to Sri Lanka for a month and the Caribbean to prepare for this," Klokker said. "Our guys have been training inside for six months on wooden floors with a carpet on top."

The desire to play?

That is not changing as evident in Klokker's assessment of a tournament that was not broadcast until its final six games.

It was watched, in most cases, by a handful of spectators and played by sportsmen unknown to anyone in Denmark other than family and friends and was, essentially, a little blip on the radar of most cricket followers.

"This is our World Cup. Playing Afghanistan, Ireland, Canada, it's massive isn't it?"

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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