Chet Greason, Gazette staff
When thinking of popular sports in Canada, cricket likely doesn’t come to mind. And yet, Stratford has a long-standing tradition with the game.
People have been playing cricket here since the 1850s, and the soccer field located behind the Festival Theatre in Upper Queen’s Park – which plays host to an annual cricket match between teams from the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival Theatre – is an officially designated cricket field.
This September 9 will mark the 37th anniversary of the annual bout of friendly competition.
Stratford is also home to Cricket in Stratford, a relatively new organization founded by local cricket fans who hope to pass their love of the game onto the next generation.
Founder Andy Allen, a Festival employee who’s lived in Stratford for the last 10 years, was first introduced to the game while working in Qatar as an audio technician for the 2006 Asian Games.
While on the project, Allen lived with two roommates: One was from Australia, the other from New Zealand.
“The only thing they had in common was cricket,” he explains.
Cricket dominated the social scene amongst the crew in Qatar. Even the labour force, largely migrant workers from India and Pakistan, would break down wooden pallets to use as bats and wickets to play on their days off.
According to Allen, he didn’t have much choice in terms of falling in love with the game.
“It was that or stare at the wall,” he laughs.
Allen describes cricket as a psychological game, full of devious tactics and heated rivalries. He also loves the international flavour of the sport.
“You can have a conversation with anyone in the world about cricket,” he says. “Every continent has this in common. In many ways, it’s better than English.”
The sport was first developed in the 16th century in England and saw its international popularity grow with the expansion of the British Empire. The game resembles baseball somewhat, being played on a circular field with a pitcher (called a bowler) tossing balls at the other team’s batters (called batsmen). Hitting the ball and having it go uncaught gives the batsmen an opportunity to score runs.
Games can last from a few hours to several days depending on the version of cricket being played.
Allen says Cricket in Stratford started off slow when it was formed earlier this year, but has steadily grown, especially once the group started hosting cricket workshops at area schools in June.
Currently, the organization uses a tennis ball and, usually, no equipment. The focus is on developing basic skills and to get kids excited about the game.
Matches are light in tone and played for fun, typically with both parents and children participating.
“We’ll have soccer moms who never played pick up a bat and realize, ‘Hey, I can play this.’”
Allen believes it is because of this accessibility that the sport has an opportunity to regain some of its popularity with the younger generation.
Evan Bjorkenstam of Kitchener, who runs the Region of Waterloo Cricket Association (ROWCA), agrees, noting cricket offers an alternative to youth who might not have the physical size to excel in a sport like football or hockey.
“(The sport) lends itself to kids who don’t always do the best at conventual sports,” he adds. “With cricket, most off the guys doing really well are the short guys.”
For that reason, Bjorkenstam adds cricket is also well suited for girls.
It is hoped that, if excitement continues to build, Stratford will be able to host its own hardball league by this time next year. Allen is especially excited about an upcoming tournament between Stratford and the nearby (ROWCA). The tournament will hold its final match in August at the Inverhaugh Cricket Club, home of the only privately owned turf wicket in Canada. The field, located just outside of Elora, has hosted a number of international competitions.
“There’s a real line-up of clubs trying to play there,” Allen notes.
For anyone interested in giving the sport a try, Cricket in Stratford and ROWCA host a social gathering every Sunday at 6 p.m. Meetings alternate between Upper Queen’s Park and McLennan Park in Kitchener. This Sunday’s event (July 14) will be held in Stratford.
Visit www.cricketinstratford.com for more information.