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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
After recognizing USA’s standout performers on the field of play at the international level with the third annual New Inning Foundation USA Cricket Awards, DreamCricket.com and New Inning Foundation are continuing a commitment to recognize other members of the USA cricket community who have made an outstanding contribution to the overall fabric of cricket in America. The recipient of the 2012 Shekhar Aravind Award for Spirit of Cricket is Owen Graham.
For young players learning the game in the San Francisco Bay Area, “OG” has been an incredibly influential figure. Without his guidance and dedication coaching many of the area’s junior players, it is doubtful that a sizable chunk of players from northern California would have made it into US representative teams over the last several years.
Image (right) - Owen Graham (standing left) presents a scholarship certificate to one of his East Bay Youth Cricket Association pupils, Manik Wason. [Courtesy EYCA]
“He’s unquestionably been the number one influence on the young cricketers we’ve had coming through,” said Rohan Chandran, a member of Stanford Cricket Club who has also been a North West Region U-19 selector alongside Graham. “He’s been there for them throughout not just as a technical coach but as a source of strength, mental support, emotional support and all of that. He’s just been there for them throughout and he’s a guy they turn to and respect and he’s taught them about the game of cricket beyond just how to play it.”
For more than 20 years, Graham has been a constant fixture in Bay Area cricket. As a player, he has been most closely associated with Caribbean Cricket Club in the Northern California Cricket Association. Despite the area being dominated by players from a South Asian background, Graham has found a way to ingratiate himself into the scene both with senior and junior amateur players.
“People take to him very quickly,” said Ganesh Sanap, former president of the NCCA. “There’s very few Jamaicans here in the Bay Area. Everyone else here is Indian or Pakistani. That Jamaican accent, people get attracted to him, his coaching techniques, his depth of cricket knowledge.”
On the field, Chandran says that Graham has been one of the two best batsmen in the NCCA over the years along with Ozair Nana. Graham was also a leading figure in the title run of the San Francisco Freedom, the champion side in the lone season of the Pro Cricket professional league in 2004.
Image (left) - Graham demonstrates batting technique to some junior players.
“He made a big difference to that team,” said Chandran, who served as an umpire in Pro Cricket and umpired some of the Freedom’s games. “What Owen did was get the team together and excited about what they were doing. I think that’s one of the things he’s done with the youngsters as well.”
“Because of the passion he puts into it, he makes it mean something whereas a lot of the teams in Pro Cricket, a lot of the players were out there thinking, ‘Well I’m playing alongside Marlon Samuels. I’m playing alongside Colin Miller. I’ve made it.’ Owen put that focus. It wasn’t about that for him because he’s been there and done that in his life. It was about let’s actually play and fight to win this thing and do the best we can. I think the four or five teams I saw in the games I umpired, the San Francisco Freedom were the most focused on playing cricket rather than socializing with the big stars.”
While Graham commands a tremendous amount of respect as a player, he is held in even higher esteem by many of the junior players who have received coaching from him. Over the years, Graham has been affiliated with youth initiatives at the California Cricket Academy, the NCCA junior program and currently the East Bay Youth Cricket Association. USA representative Saami Siddiqui credits Graham with helping to develop him into a player capable of making USA’s junior and senior national teams.
“For all the years I’ve been playing cricket, I haven’t come across anyone as knowledgeable as OG,” Siddiqui said. “The only coaches I can compare with OG are guys like Robin Singh, Thiru Kumaran and when we went to New Zealand and we had Dipak Patel and Hamish Barton. Barring those people, I haven’t learned as much from anybody as I have from OG. Even though he hasn’t had a big time position, the amount he has to offer without a doubt is by far the most.”
Siddiqui started out his playing career as a batsman but says it was Graham who pointed him in the direction of wicketkeeping. All along through his development, Siddiqui says it was the knowledge Graham imparted to a core group of junior players in the region which included former North West Region U-19 player Saad Kaan, former USA U-19 captain Shiva Vashishat and former USA U-19 player Saqib Saleem which enabled them to become some of the region’s and nation’s best junior players.
“Whatever exposure I’ve had at the USA national level would not have been possible without OG,” Siddiqui said. After representing the USA at the 2010 ICC U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, Siddiqui made his senior team debut for USA last November at The Auty Cup series in Florida. “What brought us success through the U-19 campaign from the regional level to the World Cup, the way we played, the way we slowed the game down with spinners, the way we built pressure, things like that it all came from OG’s thought processes and everything he taught us. The things that he says make sense.”
Graham’s selflessness was especially evident to Siddiqui over the past year while Graham was going through cancer treatment for multiple myeloma beginning last April. The NCCA staged a T20 tournament over Labor Day weekend in September and Siddiqui says Graham watched a web stream of the games during treatment in order to give Siddiqui feedback on how his team played.
“When he was in the middle of his treatment… OG wasn’t able to come out to the game, but it was streamed online and we made it to the semifinals and lost. He watched and talked to us about the things we did wrong and what to do next time,” Siddiqui said. “He’s still the guy we can go to and when you have a conversation with him you always come out better and knowing what you did wrong and you come out learning something that you could’ve done better.”
His dedication to youth cricketers has continued more recently with EYCA, whose president Gopal Samant said last year that the structure that was put in place would not have been able to get underway without Graham’s expertise.
“I have not found another person as passionate as him who had the reason to take the game to the right place,” said Samant. “OG obviously has been a pillar of putting together the structure, the curriculum, what needs to be done and what doesn’t need to be done. His importance to EYCA goes without saying. He’s been the primary pillar who helped us define how a club needs to run and what kind of infrastructure we need.”
After finishing his cancer treatment, Graham has been irrepressible in his desire to keep up his commitment to the region’s youth. Just this week a training session video was posted online by Saleem in which Graham continues to feed him balls on a bowling machine so that Saleem can get as much practice in as possible before he arrives in Florida later this month for his first tour with the senior team at the ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament.
USA is a country whose cricket is almost entirely based around the efforts of volunteers who give themselves to the game. Graham embodies all that servants like former Midwest Cricket Conference President Shekhar “Shekhs” Aravind strived to accomplish in cricket. Aravind served as president of one of the biggest leagues in the USA, which has teams stretching from Wisconsin to Missouri, until his tragic death after injuries sustained in a boating accident in 2011 at age 38.
Image (right) - Shekhar Aravind
Aravind once stated that one of his biggest hopes was that the “promotion of youth cricket in academies, schools and districts will pique interest and help grow the crowds here in the Midwest and around the country.” It is the spirit of volunteers like Graham who are carrying out Aravind’s mission by helping junior players enjoy cricket and maintain a relationship with the game into their adult lives.
Congratulations to Owen Graham on receiving the 2013 Shekhar Aravind Award for Spirit of Cricket. As part of this honor, Graham will receive a plaque recognizing his contributions to the United States cricket community as well as a $250 DreamCricket.com Pavilion Shop gift certificate sponsored by New Inning Foundation.