COUNTRIES like Pakistan and Bangladesh have been talking about a revival of cricket over the past 12 months.
Both these Commonwealth nations are part of the elite 10 countries given the Test status; others in that group are England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, the West Indies, India, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
In Malaysia, to the layman, cricket is perceived as an “old” sport, associated with our former colonial masters – the British.
Its rules seem antiquated and befuddling. Malaysians in general much prefer badminton, football and hockey to cricket.
However, the question begs to be asked, could Malaysia be the next country to herald a revival of the sport, especially with the advent of the much shorter Twenty20 (T20) format?
V. Clarence Selvam, general manager of Malaysian Cricket Association (MCA), says it's already happening.
“I think to a large extent the process of a revival has already started. It's just a matter of building on it further, getting the momentum going and getting the national team to achieve something big. That would definitely spur a revival.
“If I want to put my neck out today, then (I would say) hopefully (a revival) can be achieved by the 2018 T20 World Cup.
“We have a good batch of boys coming up and a good batch of younger boys too, so there is that projection for the next three to four years. It's just that we need to push them and give them the exposure,” he says.
He cites the hockey team that trains and gets playing tours in other countries, saying that is exactly what our cricket boys need. Exposure is what will help them improve and learn.
More picking up the sport
Dinesh Muthuraman, MCA development manager, informs that they are currently seeing more children playing the sport. Previously, there were about 100 schools playing cricket. Today that number has increased by three-fold to 349 schools.
MCA believe that cricket can be big in Malaysia. Dinesh says that in 2009 there were five to six thousand kids playing the sport. Today, that number has shot up to about 15,000 children.
According to Clarence, there have been a lot of changes over the last five to 10 years. The biggest one is the racial aspect.
“In the past, a lot of Indians and Chinese used to play the sport. Today, statistics will show that it's 90-95% Malays who are playing the game,” he says, crediting the schools for helping to improve the take-up rate of the sport.
Another big change which has been galvanising the sport worldwide is the 2003 introduction of the T20 format. While both the two-day and one-day matches obviously take a longer time, the T20 is done and dusted in merely three hours.
The shorter format is more exciting, especially to the younger generation.
While all three formats are played in Malaysia, Clarence foresees the T20 playing a bigger role eventually.
“The T20 is more fun and exciting and the kids have a good time hitting it hard,” he says.
Clarence says cricket in Malaysia has spread via “a lot of word of mouth”.
Concurring, Dinesh credits the teachers in all the states including Sabah and Sarawak, for doing a great job encouraging the children to play cricket.
Right now, the MCA are working closely with the states to offer them support and keep cricket events and activities going.
Where's the support?
While they are active in keeping the sport alive in the states, Clarence and Dinesh lament the fact that they don't get enough support from the government and the media.
“I think for us at this point in time, the biggest challenge is getting the government's assistance. We can't say that they're not helping at all; they are. We are very grateful that they've put cricket in Sukma (Malaysia Games),” says Clarence.
However, MCA often feel hard done-by, especially when compared to the priority and handouts given to sports like football.
According to the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings (as at July 29, 2013), Malaysia is now 29th out of 106 countries. The MCA inform that they are second in Asia, excluding the Test-playing countries.
Compare this to football, which gets so much attention and funds, yet today lies at a lowly 150th position out of 209 countries in the FIFA rankings.
Despite feeling like the “adopted child”, cricket plugs on in Malaysia. In fact, despite all that it is not given, surprisingly it has gained popularity locally.
Plans for development
The men at the helm of the MCA know that they can't just rely on talents coming out of the secondary schools. Cricket has to go down further, to the primary schools and even the playgrounds.
Although cricket is already being played in some primary schools, the MCA want to reach out to more.
In fact, Clarence wants to introduce the sport to the smaller children by coming up with plastic bats. He says that unlike public perception, cricket can be played anywhere.
“All you need is someone to throw and someone to hit. You can put up plastic stumps and play it anywhere,” says Clarence.
Another plan that MCA have for this year is to revive the club league.
“We have clubs but they are not as active as we would like them to be. Most of them are not registered with us. We want them to register so that it'll be easy for us to invite them for our tournaments. A lot of expats here are starting up clubs, too.
“Previously, we had 32 clubs, but at one point it went down, and now it's gradually increasing again,” says Clarence.
That number should reach 50 in a matter of three to four years, projects Dinesh.
The MCA also want to have more domestic tournaments around the country, rather than just focused in the Klang Valley, as this will hopefully expose the sport to a wider audience.
Eyeing the World Cup
MCA's ultimate goal is to get the national team into the World Cup.
“The target that we have is 2018 for the T20. T20 is the easiest way to get into the World Cup simply because it allows more teams to play.
“We also want to put ourselves on the world rankings. We're playing in the World Cricket League – that's where world rankings are established. We are No. 29 today and in Division 5. We want to be in the top two or be the top team for this particular league, because if we win that, we will move two or three ranks up.
“Then we will play Division 4 in June and Division 3 next year,” says Clarence.
While they know that doing well at the Asian Games in Incheon (from Sept 19-Oct 4) and making it to the World Cup will increase their fan base in Malaysia, it remains a tricky situation.
To achieve a big win, they need more funds to facilitate having more tournaments and providing exposure for the national squad; but they can't get more funds from the government and sponsors until and unless they achieve something big.
And there-in lies the chicken and egg dilemma that Malaysian cricket faces.