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Never Fold: Canada puts Punjabis out of Punjab back in cricket

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Navneet Dhaliwal, Pargat Singh, Kaleem Sana and their journeys to a new cricketing home

Navneet Dhaliwal threw balls for an eight-year-old Shubman Gill  Getty Images

The Canada team fines players who don’t speak English in the team environment. Which is fair because there are players of many different origins and they need to not form their small groups. Except that when you put two Punjabis in a room, in the words of Navneet Dhaliwal, “only Punjabi comes out”. Canada have more than two Punjabis. From both eastern and western Punjab. “It’s hard,” says Dhaliwal. “We just keep paying fines.”

Punjabi is a difficult language to resist. Even the Caribbean-born players in the Canada team ask for Sidhu Moose Wala and Shubh songs to dance to. You want Punjabi music with some more gravitas, and there is Pakistan for it.

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Pargat Singh, born in Ropar in 1992, grew up in Jalandhar. An opening batter, he played for Punjab through the age groups without ever getting dropped, he says. He was in the senior squad or around it since 2009 but made his senior debut only in 2015. He says he couldn’t figure out the politics of the place. Whenever Yuvraj Singh or Harbhajan Singh would be around, they would make sure they asked for this talented player but he would be discarded again when the two India players were away. Of the 22 matches Pargat played for the Punjab senior team, 20 came when either or both of Yuvraj and Harbhajan were there.

Eventually Pargat had had enough. He was only 24 or 25 when he decided to move to Canada, where his brother already lived. One of three sons of a district-level cricketer, Pargat had shown the right mixture of talent and commitment to get that far. He was part of the larger Mumbai Indians squad in 2010. He was good enough to get a job at Reliance, owners of MI. There he played alongside Virender Sehwag, Shikhar Dhawan and the Pathan brothers.

From being a star one day, I was now using wheelchair to go to the bathroomKaleem Sana

In the absence of chances for Punjab, Pargat gave up serious cricket without consulting with anyone. His family tried to convince him to stay, his friends told him he still had time, but he didn’t have the patience. “That period of 2009 to 2014 was very hard on me,” Pargat says. “I was aggressive in my decision-making. I didn’t have a mentor in cricket, and didn’t listen to anyone outside. I had given up from inside. ‘Why is it happening to me?'”

In Canada, Pargat drove Uber and just played weekends. That’s where he met Kaleem Sana, two years younger to him.

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Sana was born in Rawalpindi in the western side of Punjab, divided by borders and a bloodied shared history. A left-arm fast bowler, Sana made his first-class debut for Pakistan Customs at the age of 15. At 16, he was named in the Pakistan Under-19 squad for the World Cup in New Zealand. Babar Azam and Ahmed Shehzad were part of this team. This was Mohammad Amir’s last year of Under-19 cricket.

Sana, though, injured his back in Zimbabwe before the tournament. L4 and L5 fractured. Not only did it end his World Cup, post rehab Sana lost his pace. He just didn’t trust his body enough to be able to push for the 140kph pace he was known for.

The injury period was a dark one for Sana. “From being a star one day, I was now using wheelchair to go to the bathroom,” Sana says. “I felt I had become a bother for my family even though they always tried to keep me positive. I spent a lot of time on wheelchair. I had anxiety and possibly depression. When I came back, I was afraid of getting injured again. So I didn’t push too far.”

Kaleem Sana lost confidence after injury  Getty Images

Without that pace, Sana quit being a serious cricketer. Five years after that injury, he received a phone call from Mohammad Irfan, the tall Pakistan left-arm quick. Irfan was unable to play one first-class game because of some family commitment so he asked Sana if he could show up. Just like that, Sana turned up for Khan Research Laboratories against State Bank of Pakistan and took the wickets of Babar and Abid Ali. However, the pace was still in the 130s, and Sana knew that pace is pace yaar.

A friend sponsored Sana’s move to Canada in 2015 where he did various odd jobs to earn a living and played cricket on the weekends. One stable job for him was coaching cricket.

On one weekend in 2017, Sana saw Pargat play. And immediately he began to push Pargat to take up cricket seriously again. Pargat didn’t want to hope again. So he didn’t take Sana seriously. Eventually when his mum got involved too, Pargat gave in. Thankfully Pargat had not given up gym training so he was fit.

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There is a house with a big TV screen in Surrey, Vancouver, that is about to be demolished as the neighbourhood is going into redevelopment. It belongs to a cricket lover Khurram Dilshad, who rented it out to Sana, who in turn converted it into a shared resting space for cricketers. Sarabjit Singh, who played Under-19s with Virat Kohli and later joined the Indian Cricket League, has lived there. Former Pakistan Test opener Imran Farhat lodged there when he went to play in Canada. Pargat lived there when he started trying to make it to the Canada team.

Sana made his international debut for Canada in February 2022. Pargat followed in November later that year. When Canada regained their ODI status in Namibia, Pargat was the highest run-getter.

Pargat Singh was persuaded to give cricket another go  Getty Images

I talk to them when the India-Pakistan fervour is at its highest. A disillusioned Indian Punjabi pushed to rediscover the sport by a Pakistani Punjabi, coming together with other Punjabi and Caribbean-born players and Canadian-born too, to beat Ireland before they face Pakistan and India.

“In cricket there’s no religion,” Pargat says. “Because of earlier experiences, I didn’t trust the system. Sana pushed me. We all bond so well together. We have dinners together. We eat together. We talk cricket for long hours. The last ODI World Cup, we watched together from that same Surrey house.”

Dhaliwal played all his cricket in Mohali. When Shubman Gill’s father first brought him to Chandigarh, Dhaliwal was knocking on the doors of Under-17 selection. “I threw the first balls at him when he moved to Mohali,” Dhaliwal says. “His dad asked me to throw balls at him to see how good he is. He must have been eight. I was in the Under-17 group. I still remember it clearly. I could see god had put talent in him.

“He played beautifully. His dad said, ‘let me know if there are any changes required’. Perhaps he wanted an input or perhaps he wanted to make sure Shubh was worth putting all the effort in. I got excited. Because if you are a cricketer, you get excited seeing a good cricketer.”

We want the world’s attention. We keep playing US as close rivals, we win too, we lose some, but the more the cricket grows in US, the better it is for CanadaNavneet Dhaliwal

Dhaliwal’s father took a risk and bought a gas station in Canada when Dhaliwal was just 22. He didn’t want to move because he wanted to play cricket, but he also felt that in a land as competitive as India if you don’t make it to the India Under-19 team, it is very rare that you make it to the highest level. So he went ahead with his family, studied for a bit but the new business needed hands.

On the side he began coaching too. He would get just as excited at seeing good cricketers no matter their background as he did when he first threw balls to Gill. “It is more fun with different cultures,” Dhaliwal says. “We get dance moves from the Caribbean-born guys, food from the Pakistanis, Sidhu Moose Wala and Shubh from us. According to me, if all the people are from the same culture, there are more fights.”

It is easy to disparage Canada as a Punjab B side, but all of them are Canadian first, then cricketers, then Punjabi or Caribbean or whatever. They also have a strong North American bond. Their matches with USA are always keenly contested – there has even been a tie in the six that Dhaliwal has played against USA – but Canada were rooting for USA when they played Pakistan. Their physio is a Pakistan-born man called Ali, whom they ribbed endlessly towards the end of the match.

“The rivalry is there, but we want North American teams to do well,” Dhaliwal says. “We want the world’s attention. We keep playing US as close rivals, we win too, we lose some, but the more the cricket grows in US, the better it is for Canada.

“Same with cricketers. We are always on the lookout. Wherever we see a player who can play nationals, everybody supports them. We want to win. If we don’t win, who will know us? You don’t get this kind of support in established countries because there are so many ready replacements available.”

Now Canada play Pakistan and India in quick succession with a USA vs India match in between. If Canada can manage an upset somehow, they will be in the race to make the Super Eights. If USA win, they will go through for sure. Imagine the fines these Punjabi boys will pay if any of that happens.

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo

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