No one could have been more thrilled to be included in the national cricket squad currently in India preparing for next year’s World Cup than Dr. Akshay Bagai, the older brother of captain/wicketkeeper, Ashish Bagai.
Not only is he touring with Canada for the first time in eight years, but he also arrived late last week in New Delhi where he spent the first 14 years of his life before the family migrated in 1993.
Canada plays two 50-overs matches in India’s capital city on November 15 and 17 before moving on to Rajpur on the 19th, Nagpur on the 25th and Mumbai four days later for additional practice games.
The squad returns home on December 4.
A cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital, Bagai is tickled pink to have the opportunity to compete for a World Cup spot. He has also ticked off March 7, 2011 on his calendar.
That’s the day when Canada meets Kenya in a World Cup match at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium where Bagai once watched India play Zimbabwe in a Test in March 1993.
“To play in front of relatives and childhood friends on a big stage such as the World Cup will be an unbelievable experience,” says the 32-year-old R.H. King Academy and University of Toronto graduate. “The only time I have gone back to India is to visit my grandparents and cousins which is something we do as a family every three years.”
Though very eager to play in the World Cup, Bagai doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse, and he’s not counting on any favours.
“Finding my role in the team and being able to contribute with bat and ball are my main goals during this World Cup training camp,” said the 13-year Toronto Cricket Club (TCC) all-rounder. “My aim is to get the best out of myself. If I can accomplish that, I feel confident that when I put my hands up, the selectors will take notice.”
Bagai enjoyed his best statistical season in the Toronto & District Cricket Association (TDCA) this year, scoring 330 runs (av. 33) and claiming 26 wickets (14.73) in the Elite division.
Assuming the captaincy in the season’s fifth game after New Zealand-born Craig Cross was forced to relinquish the role due to the birth of his child, Bagai led TCC to a third-place finish in the nine-team Elite division and a play-off spot.
When former India Under-19 leg-break/googly bowler Balaji Rao pulled out of last September’s Cricket Canada Summer Festival involving the West Indies High Performance Centre members and Bermuda in Malton because of injury, Bagai was summoned and he snatched the opportunity by claiming 5-10 off four overs in the first Twenty/20 contest against the Bermudans.
It was the first time that he was representing Canada in eight years since debuting in the Americas Cup series in Argentina.
“Cricket has always been a passion for me,” said the leg-spinner and useful lower order batsman who was the 2003 TDCA Player of the Year. “But my medical profession has been the priority for the past seven to eight years and cricket has taken a backseat. However, I made a conscious decision last year that it was now or never. If I didn’t give it my best shot now, I knew I would not get the opportunity again. I don’t want to have any regrets.”
With the support of his employers who granted him time-off without pay, Bagai headed to Australia last January for 10 weeks to hone his skills with the Sunshine Coast Scorchers in Queensland.
Former Canadian coach Jeff Thomas facilitated Bagai’s tenure with the club and his accommodation.
“I really worked on my game in those few weeks ‘Down Under’,” said the former national Under-19 player. “I came back mentally and physically sharp and inspired, and I think that’s the reason why I had a successful club season.”
Playing alongside his younger brother is another reason why Bagai is keen to make the World Cup team.
The Brian Hale Cricket Academy graduates and long time TCC members enjoy a very close relationship.
“At home, all we talk about is cricket,” said the older brother. “When Ashish got married this summer, he moved in the building next to me, so I still see him regularly and we still relish that closeness. Last season, he played under me at the club level and I am looking forward to playing for Canada with him at the helm.”
The older Bagai is proud of the strides his brother has made in becoming one of the top players in the Associates.
“He was into soccer and he did not start playing cricket seriously until around age 12,” recalls Bagai, whose favourite cricketer is Rahul Dravid. “He used to cut corners earlier in his career, but as he matured he began to do things differently and work very hard on his fitness and all other aspects of the sport.”
The Bagai family, who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in the affluent suburban south Delhi district of Lajpat Nagar, came to Canada after the patriarch – Vijay – was dispatched to Toronto to open a branch office for his former company.
Assimilating into a new society was not easy for the immigrants, especially after Vijay’s job posting did not work out. Mother Rita, who came here with a doctorate having taught at the University of Delhi where she established the first child development department, had to redo her Masters before securing a teaching post at Ryerson University a decade ago.
In 2007, Bagai and his parents went to St. Lucia to watch younger brother Ashish and Canada play in the World Cup. Early next year, the parents hope to make the trip to South Asia to witness their sons appear in cricket’s showpiece event.