Working for the hell of it

When I was asked three months ago to help organise an ‘All Stars’ cricket match between an Asian XI and an International XI in Toronto, the most appealing part of the challenge was the fact that money would be raised to develop and promote the game in Canada – and the profile would certainly be raised again with the presence of some big names.

The signatures of six Pakistan players were secured a month before the match and ticket sales to the huge Asian community in Toronto were flying. The prospect of seeing Shahid Afridi, Misbah-ul-Haq, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammed Hafeez, Umar Akmal and Hammad Azam was too good to refuse. Even ticket prices of nearly C$200 for prime seats were no deterrent.

With respect to their teammates, the Pakistanis were the big deal – although the Sri Lankans in Toronto were scarcely less excited about seeing the ageless, still brilliant Sanath Jayasuriya and current international paceman Chanaka Welegedera. Bangladesh was represented by their most promising young allrounder for years, Nasir Hossain, and India by veteran left-arm spinner, Sunil Joshi.

The ICC conducted a routine due diligence check on the promoter of the game before it could endorse it, and Cricket Canada duly sanctioned it. The contract for the players was passed by their highest authority, the Federation of International Cricketers, and they did their best for their clients by tightening up several clauses. The green light was duly signalled.

Seven days before the match the PCB refused permission for their players to participate. A ‘trial match’ had been organised in Lahore to finalise their squad for the forthcoming tour of Sri Lanka. The organisers in Toronto pleaded for just Afridi and one other, either Misbah or Ajmal, to travel, on the basis that they were hardly ‘unknown’ quantities. The PCB refused, despite appeals from the Ambassador in Vancouver.

Not only did ticket sales dry up, but over ten thousand fans either demanded refunds or refused to pay for tickets they had pre-ordered. It was the beginning of the end. Although the Asian team was rebuilt with Canadian national players (well enough, as it transpired, to beat a very strong international team) the event had spiralled out of control and was doomed.

It would have been one thing if all those participating had been able to leave Toronto without being out of pocket. But at least a dozen incurred significant costs to get there. Three New Zealanders, Jacob Oram, Kyle Mills and Tim Southee, bought tickets to Auckland in order to begin their tortuous journey the ‘wrong’ way around the world via Abu Dhabi courtesy of one of the sponsors, Etihad. Zimbabweans Grant Flower (coach) and Brendan Taylor had to get to Jo’burg – as did Mark Boucher who also incurred the cost of a visa (R2000 and overnight in a hotel).

The most extraordinary commitment, however, came from Welegedera and Hossain who paid their entire business class airfare to get to Toronto – on the assurance, obviously, that it would be reimbursed. Everybody else was flown from various parts of the world – all business class – and accommodated in a luxurious, five star hotel on the shores of Lake Ontario – the Westin Castle.

A South African television producer worked on the screening and logistics of the game for two months and SuperSport’s top director, Lo Rensburg, flew to Toronto for the game as well. Ian Bishop, Mike Haysman, Alistair Campbell and I commentated for Canada’s Sportsnet channel.

We were all given a daily allowance of $50 so it wasn’t all bad – although a chicken Caesar salad cost $26 in the hotel!

None of the above people have been paid. None. Some can just about claim to have broken even but some are seriously out of pocket.

My question is this: Are we ALL simply stupid? Can so many people, from such diverse backgrounds and with such diverse skills, simply be idiots? Some, undoubtedly, were motivated primarily (if not completely) by money. Some by a sense of adventure. Others by curiosity.

But as I sit here in a transit lounge at Heathrow Airport, I can’t help wondering if there is still something a bit different about cricket and the people who make it happen. Something made us all put that game on in Toronto’s Skydome, and it was a bloody good one, as it happened.

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