I first saw a very young Hassan Ibrahim bowl from a makeshift tent at the Chiang Mai Gymkhana Oval in December 2009. I was padded up, preparing to bat for Thailand in the opening match of the ACC Challenge Trophy 2009 against the Maldives.
Ibrahim had a smooth front-on action, and consistently hit the deck hard from a height. He also bowled with an unusual level of control for a bowler in the lower rungs of Associate cricket. At good pace. ‘Quick’, I remember thinking on that day.
Twelve years on, I chat to Ibrahim on zoom.
‘Are you the fastest bowler in the Maldives today?’ I ask him.
‘Yeah’, Ibrahim responds nonchalantly.
‘This is definitely going in the interview,’ I retort, chuckling.
‘I should have been a bit more modest, maybe,’ says Ibrahim, breaking into a nervous laughter.
But perhaps modesty gets you nowhere in Associate cricket. Even more so if you happen to be born on a small island where land is sparse, the players few, and cricket equipment needs to be flown in on commercial flights.
Ibrahim exudes a kind of self-confidence that elite sportspeople must possess in order to thrive in highly competitive environments. His goals and aspirations – to play in franchise cricket and the Sri Lanka Premier League – match. Yet he is also honest and circumspect about the reality in which he finds himself as a cricketer from the Maldives.
In many ways, Ibrahim’s is the story of Maldives cricket. Like him, it is aspirational, hardworking, and confident, yet held back by geography, a lack of resources and the glass ceiling of international cricket.
Early island days
Notwithstanding a long history of cricket being played on its shores, the Maldives is the only South Asian nation (barring perhaps Bhutan) where football is vastly more popular than cricket. Like most other kids, Ibrahim’s story starts on the football pitch.
‘Before cricket, I played a bit of football, but then the youngest age-group representative team was the Under-15 team, and I was too young to make that team. So when an opportunity came through the Cricket and Beyond program, which was run by the Cricket Board [of the Maldives] in association with schools, I went for trials and then that’s when I got hooked on to cricket.’
Ibrahim recalls his first tour to Sri Lanka with the Maldives Under-11 team. It was an experience, which first highlighted the importance of being able to train and play on turf. ‘We had never played on turf. We struggled big time because we only had access to matting and astro-turf. Batting was especially hard because the ball behaves so differently on those surfaces.’
‘This is one of the biggest disadvantages for our cricket, not having a turf wicket to play on. How can a cricketer progress or develop their skills without regular access to turf?’
To date the Maldives does not have a purpose-built cricket ground with natural turf wickets. The Ekuveni Sports Complex in the capital, Male, is a multi-purpose ground with an astro-turf wicket and a 400 metre running track around it.
Cost is a huge factor. Being a relatively low ranked Associate, the Maldives does not receive anywhere near enough funding from the ICC to build a turf oval or ground. India’s interest in using cricket as a tool for bilateral diplomacy is an unexpected boon for the Maldives. Last year, the Indian Government announced that it would grant the Government of Maldives USD$6.9 million to construct a state-of-the-art Cricket Stadium in Hulhumale.
‘I have seen the blueprints online, and when complete, the facility will be really beneficial to cricket in the Maldives. We could also bring an IPL game to the island,’ says Ibrahim.
Ibrahim is born in the capital Male, and lived there when he was growing up. Being in close proximity to the epicentre of the sport in the country allowed him to devote it significant time.
‘Male is quite small. You can run around it in 20 to 30 minutes. At the time, it took five minutes from home to the ground on the bike with the kit bag on my back. As Under-13s, we used to train every day. I was at the grounds every day. On weekends, we would have practice games or friendly matches. So it was cricket every day apart from Fridays.’
Geography impedes cricket development in the Maldives, and children born and brought up outside Male find it harder to take up the sport at a young age. There are talented male and female athletes on more remote atolls who Ibrahim believes would make successful cricketers. But they would need to move to the capital to take up the sport long-term.
‘I see potential female and male players in Fuvamula and Kunahandhoo. The life of a teenage girl or boy is very different on the atolls, compared to Male. They are natural athletes: they swim every day, climb trees, run around. They need to be taught the skills and have opportunities to play cricket.’
Being an archipelago of small, widely dispersed atolls makes it hard to access facilities outside Male, and build new ones on the little land available.
The country’s only purpose-built cricket ground is in Fuvamula, an hour’s flight to the south of Male. ‘It’s quite far and not very cheap to get there and back. There are limited flights. They played the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) T20 Tournament there. The players had to take a boat from one atoll to an airport, then fly ten minutes to Fuvamula, and do the same thing on the way back every day.’
National colours and career choices
Five years after Ibrahim started playing cricket, Maldives won its first international cricket tournament, the ACC Emerging Nations Trophy 2005. The team returned to much fanfare in Male. Maldives’ then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom rolled out the red carpet for the players as they walked off the plane.
Despite the fact that this was an amateur, international tournament with no bearing on World Cup qualification or rankings, a win for the national team was a win for the nation. The players too were national heroes.
Ibrahim made his national debut a year later at the ACC Trophy 2006. ‘I was just 15 playing against these men. I was obviously picked based on my talent, but I bowled the first over against Singapore with the new ball on my debut and I was shivering. The experience of that tournament really helped me become who I am now. Among other things, my fielding was not up to par. I changed all of that and came back stronger.’
Ibrahim’s debut tournament in 2006 was marked by close losses in crucial matches, which shaped the trajectory of Maldives’ participation in international cricket for years to come.
‘We were grouped with Singapore, Oman, and Bahrain. We should have beaten Singapore. We got them all out for 150. After lunch, it started raining so badly. It was rained out. We lost the next game to Bahrain by 35 runs despite Moosa [Kaleem] scoring 130…if we had won one of those games, we would have been in the ‘ACC Trophy Elite’ grouping.’
Maldives’ loss to Thailand by six runs at the ACC Trophy Challenge 2009 had even more significant consequences. It meant that the Maldives had to play Oman rather than Bhutan in the semi-finals of the tournament, with both finalists qualifying for the World Cricket League (WCL).
‘That was one of the saddest days for cricket in Maldives,’ Ibrahim says. It is also a testament to the competitiveness, slim margins of error, and impossibly high stakes in Associate cricket.
After that tournament, the Maldives hired former Test player Brendon Kuruppu as Head Coach. A ‘master tactician’ as Ibrahim describes him, the Sri Lankan lead the Maldives to victory at the next ACC Trophy Challenge 2010 in Thailand. Along the way, they beat Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both ranked higher and more fancied to win the tournament.
It was a turning point for Ibrahim, who wanted to contribute more. ‘At the time I was 19. I was good at cricket and thought I could play cricket and work in something related to sport. My father and my mother always backed me to play sport. They did not really force me to become an engineer or doctor,’ he says.
Since then, Ibrahim has become one of the mainstays of the Maldives national cricket team. He has played in successive Asian Games (2010 and 2014), and is the equal highest wicket-taker (14 wickets for his country in T20 internationals.
Blazing trails and breaking ceilings
Although the Maldives is yet to qualify for an ICC event, there have been significant improvements on the field and off it. According to Ibrahim, performances in their last three tournaments against West Asian opponents demonstrate that ‘we are on par and simply need better coaching and tactical input to beat these teams.’
In 2015, after the Maldives beat Bhutan and Bahrain in the first two games of the ACC Elite Trophy, the President of the country called to congratulate the team. According to Ibrahim, ‘that started the movement to pay Maldives’ national cricketers.’ At present, twenty national cricketers are paid approximately $250 USD a month, which assists with buying cricket equipment, gym members, and other necessities.
The Cricket Board of Maldives (CBM) has also organised bilateral and trilateral series on more than one occasion in the last five years, giving players exposure to higher-level international competition on natural turf.
Notwithstanding these developments, Ibrahim realised early in his career that he needed to test himself against tougher opposition far more consistently. And so he took matters into his own hands. Not once, not twice, but thrice.
‘When I moved to Sydney to do my Bachelors [in 2010], I decided to play Grade Cricket. I remember my first training with Wests. I did not have transport, and ended up arriving an hour late. They asked me what I did.
‘”I’m a bowler,” I said. So they gave me the ball. After thirty minutes, they asked me if I was trialling elsewhere.’
‘“Bankstown,” I responded.
“Nah, nah, don’t go to Bankstown. We’ll take you”
That’s how I ended up playing a few years of Grade Cricket in Sydney.’
Although Ibrahim played most of his career in second, third, and fourth Grade, he did play a number of games for the first team, including with international players such as Gurinder Sandhu and Monty Panesar.
‘The standard [in grade cricket] is so high, so it was a really good experience…except that nobody knew where Maldives was. They all thought I was Sri Lankan or Indian.’
Years later, on a national team tour to Malaysia, Ibrahim met Rohan Selvaratnam at Kinrara Oval. ‘I was talking to him about the standard of domestic cricket in Malaysia and about opportunities to play abroad again, and he put me in touch with the Penang Cricket Association, who invited me to play in the 2-Day competition. It was a kind of trial to see if I was good enough to play in the 50-Over Premier League.’
Ibrahim played well in the competition, taking six wickets at an average of 20.33 and an economy rate of 3.59, and helping Penang get to the semi-finals of the competition. ‘I didn’t think the standard would be that high, but they [Malaysia] have a good bunch of local talent at their disposal, and foreigners from India and Sri Lanka. They gave me an apartment, a match fee, and food. I was on a three-month tourist visa, so that was not an issue either.’
Ibrahim’s connection with Malaysia continued, as he was invited back to play for Kuala Lumpur in the MCA T20 Interstate 2019.
Ever the ambassador, there is another legacy of his relationship with Selvaratnam. Today, many of Maldives’ national cricketers rely on Kasel Sports, the company Selvaratnam owns, for their cricket equipment. ‘We don’t have a cricket shop in the Maldives. I have a good relationship with him [Selvaratnam]. It is really cheap, and I can trust him to send me good quality stuff. When people come back from Malaysia to Male we buy extra baggage, and ask them to bring equipment for us. That’s how it works.’
World Cups and franchise leagues?
After his first stint in Malaysia, Ibrahim met Dean Woodford through a contact. Woodford is an Australian High Performance coach with a Maldivian wife, and experience working with Zimbabwe and the South Australia Cricket Association (SACA). In a move illustrative of his ambition, self-belief, and drive to be a better cricketer, Ibrahim decided to pursue cricket full-time with his parents’ support. He asked Woodford to be his full-time coach.
‘It was a two-year project. I was fully dedicated to cricket. I was doing gym sessions three days a week, two running sessions, and skills in the evening. It was six or seven hours of cricket training each day,’ says Ibrahim.
Woodford organised for Ibrahim to Melbourne, where he played for Carlton under the tutelage of Melbourne Stars player, Evan Gulbis.
‘It was incredible. I was competing with the 1st Grade players in the nets. I even had a small training stint with the Renegades. It was good to bowl to Pollard, Finch, Nabi, Cameron White, Tom Cooper, and those big players,’ Ibrahim recalls.
The period in Melbourne propelled Ibrahim’s self-belief, and his personal ambitions. ‘I thought to myself that the gap is not that far. If I have the opportunity to train abroad somewhere for a longer period with such skilled players, there is no reason that my cricket could not go to the next level. There is no reason I could not play something like the Sri Lanka Premier League.’
However, he is circumspect in the face of many years in the Associate game. ‘It’s really hard. I do not think I’ve got opportunities in any franchise cricket because the number of foreigners they’re taking is limited, and all the big-name players take those spots. I hope they create an Associate spot for each franchise team, or come up with a rule that will expose a lot of good cricketers in the lower circuit [to such competition].’
What about the national team?
‘We’ve got the skill, we’ve got the talent. We just need technical expertise, a lot of practice games and a proper five-year plan. There is no reason why we could not progress through to the World Cup Qualifier,’ he says optimistically.
I commend this optimism, and remember where Hassan Ibrahim and the Maldives were thirteen years ago when we first played against each other.
Since then, both have been places, through sheer self-belief, ambition and hard-work, and in spite of the challenges of being a #SmallIslandCricketer.
Anything is possible.
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