Nearly two hours before the match, hundreds of fans showed up, chanting, “Lala” as they beckoned legendary Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi to come to meet them, take a photo or sign an autograph.
“These are true fans. They love the game,” said Richard Berridge, CEO of the Global T20 Cricket tournament.
The fans were in attendance to watch Afridi’s Toronto Nationals take on the Vancouver Knights in one of the last few days of the nearly three-week-long tournament taking place in Brampton, Ont. The GT20 was returned for the first time since 2019, for its third season.
When it was last active in 2019, it drew nearly 150 million viewers during the tournament, making it the second-largest sporting event in North America, eclipsed only by the Super Bowl.
“It all came together very quickly, the immigration, building out the stadium, and even getting the crowds out,” Berridge said.
“We plan to return next year and make it bigger and better.”
GT20 Tournament Hits Brampton
The league has continued to attract superstar talents like Pakistani stalwart and national team player Mohammad Rizwan. The Pakistani national, who has faced some of the highest calibre of play in the world, says there is some work to do for the GT20 to establish itself.
“There’s the Pakistani Super League, the Indian Premier League, Big Bash — this isn’t quite that, but they’re learning, they’re trying to up their level,” said Rizwan.
“I’m learning here; there’s a lot to pick up for myself and even younger players.”
While the GT20 was one of the first leagues outside South Asia and Australia to attract international talent worldwide, they face fierce competition. In the last year alone, The Hundred and, more directly, Major League Cricket, which has ownership from the IPL, has ventured into North America to compete for some of the players.
The MLC’s backing is significant, with some of the teams being owned by the Ambani family or having top-level CEOs in the U.S. as investors, but Berridge thinks they can all work together.
“I don’t necessarily see it as competition. I see them as a partner along with the LPL, and the three of us should be looking to develop the market in North America right down to South America, including the Caribbean,” he said.
For legendary Jamaican cricketer Chris Gayle, playing in the GTA has been a sort of homecoming. The towering batsman played international games with the West Indies in Toronto and has been in the region a handful of times, given its Caribbean culture.
“It’s a mixed culture as well, the [South] Asian and Caribbean sides. They’re very passionate about cricket,” he said.
Gayle, who has played in the two top T20 leagues in the world, the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Pakistani Super League (PSL) doesn’t think the GT20 is that far off.
“The GT20 has the potential to be in the top five leagues around the world,” he said. “I think the future is bright for this league.”
GT20 Cricket tournament kicks off in Brampton
In terms of how star players have been treated, Rizwan said everything has been present.
“The way the tournament is going, the way it has gone, the arrangements made, it is outstanding,” he said. “The fans — these Pakistani fans, where they are, god-willing, show me love, which brings me happiness. You find love from the fans, and they’re so kind,”
With the tournament wrapping as Caribana begins, Gayle noted that he is ready to jump up.
“I’m always ready to jump,” he said.
Looking at the future of the GT20 Canada
Right now, the games are being played in the mornings and afternoons to get prime broadcast hours in India. While most of the viewership is based out of South Asia and India, Berridge wants to limit the GT20’s reliance on India by growing viewership in Canada and the U.S..
“North America is still the largest commercial part of the world for sport. You may not get the same volume in terms of viewers and so forth that you get out in India, but at the end of the day, the value of the viewership in North America exceeds any other market,” he said.
Brampton’s CAA grounds have been quickly transformed from an average field meant for Sunday League cricket to hosting some of the best players in the world. There’s seating for over 1,000 people, VIP suites and multiple scoreboards, but while the transformation was dramatic, it’s still lacking.
“We don’t have lights,” Berridge said, noting that is one of the primary reasons they cannot play night games. “There is no light setup, so we need them installed or to bring in portable ones moving forward. We want night games.”
Moving toward the future of the GT20, Berridge said he wants to find a balance where cricket-crazed fans in India will still tune in, but fans in Canada can attend evening matches.
“We will find that balance between getting decent broadcast times in India, but again, if we continue to develop the North American market, we will start to get much more valuable partnerships with broadcasters here,” he said.
Cricket league plans Canadian expansion
And while Brampton is the current home of the GT20, and the goal is to have a stadium built in the near future, Berridge said he’d like to get to a point where teams are playing in the city they’re representing.
“In an ideal world, we’d have home and road games…We’re still a ways from that, but a game here and in either Surrey or Vancouver would likely be next,” he said.
The boost, both economic and getting eyes on cricket brought in by the GT20, is appreciated by Cricket Canada, which believes an international league could grow the sport rapidly.
“This is for the growth of cricket, huge for getting all the people together and highlighting to the government and different corporations,” said Ranjit Chaudhri, Cricket Canada director.
Cricket lovers find unique spaces to play late night matches in GTA
Chaudhri noted there are tens of thousands of cricketers in Ontario alone, and now they have something to aspire to and show their talent.
“All our local cricketers are looking forward, and these big stars coming into these events are inspirational for these young guys,” he said.
As for the next steps, the same way municipalities have embraced a sport like pickleball, Chaudhri hopes there are more places to play cricket, too.
“We need more infrastructure, more grounds and an international facility where such events can be held,” he said.