A heartwarming story of Vietnam’s underdog cricket team and its coach

When the Malaysian Organizing Committee announced that the sport of cricket would be included in the 2017 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Kuala Lumpur, it meant one thing for Vietnam: the country better put a team together.

Though the Vietnam Cricket Association (VCA) has been in existence since 2006, it’s a league driven by expatriates that Vietnamese athletes have largely remained absent from. Perhaps a result of the complex rulebook or the epically time-consuming day-long matches, the sport’s local impenetrability meant that any potential squad would be centuries behind their regional counterparts, such as Singapore and Thailand, who embraced cricket during British colonization. The French, unfortunately, were not the biggest cricket fanatics.

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Shortly after the announcement in 2015, the Vietnamese government put out a call for tryouts and organized a training day once a week led by VCA players. Turnout was consistently bleak until a VND5 million monthly stipend was offered to entice athletes, but still the ragtag group of would-be cricket players found themselves  without a coach. That’s when Mick Blinkhoff, an Australian who plays on the United Cricket Club in the VCA, was inadvertently thrust into the picture.

“It started in February of this year,” says Mick. “I was playing a game verse a Malaysian Eleven and there were all these Vietnamese kids in uniform there. Someone said it was the Vietnam cricket team and I asked who was coaching them. They said they don’t have a coach and I thought ‘Oh, that must be good.’” The sarcasm in his tone is thick.

Out of curiosity, Mick decided to check out one of the team’s training sessions and, as he explains, the situation quickly spiraled from there. “The guys all thought I was their new coach. I told them I’ve just come to have a look, but they didn’t understand. When I was leaving, they asked, ‘When are you coming back?”

At this point, it starts to sound like something out of a movie, as sport proved to transcend language and cultural barriers and formed a bond between the expat and the aspiring athletes. With previous experience coaching youths and finding himself at a time in life when he was both able and willing to make the large  commitment that such an undertaking would require, it was an agreeable match and Mick came on board to train the team without any compensation.

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Love For the Game

A lifelong player, Mick shares that he’s been playing since he could walk. “My two older brothers were playing, so I always tried to match myself up against them. I started playing in school. Then high school. Then I didn’t play for a few years and when I was about 24, I decided to go back and play. I’d finish working in a bar at around 5 a.m., get up at 8 a.m. and go play cricket for eight or nine hours in the sun, then get two hours of sleep and go back to work. You do it for the love,” he adds. But in order to fully understand the coach, it’s important to take a step back.

Still living in Australia, Mick took a six-week adventure the previous year and arrived in Saigon on the back end of the trip when life threw him a surprise. He fell for a girl named Thao on his last day in the city and everything changed. He got as far as Da Nang before turning back, sensing that Thao would be important in his life. Again, he would soon have to leave to catch a flight from Hong Kong back to Australia, and again he would disregard his itinerary.

Eventually, Mick would return to Australia and as he was figuring out his next move, Thao was there visiting when his mother passed away. “I had a bit of a breakdown moment after that,” he recalls, “I remember doing an Iron Man and was in the last kilometer of the run and I thought ‘I’m not doing this again. I’m leaving Australia.’  That was my moment. The next day I resigned and ten days later I was here in Vietnam. I literally sold everything I had, so that’s what I’ve been living off of.”

Maybe it was the comfort found in his love for the game or the unexpected life changes that led him to accept whatever came his way—perhaps a combination of both—but Mick embraced the opportunity to develop cricket in his newfound home. “Initially, I was only doing three or four days and by the end I was doing six or seven days with them. I was also teaching them English on top of that. The game is predominantly English-spoken. The terms are in English and the umpires control the games in English. That’s why I started giving them two 90-minute lessons a week.”

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Though the SEA Games did not ultimately go as planned—“We had the gold and bronze medalists in our pool. It was a tough draw,” Mick admits—it was the team’s process of learning and overcoming obstacles along the way that he’s most prepared to talk about. From the challenges of less than ideal training grounds, to long distance commutes and a lack of funding, the players refused to get discouraged despite plenty of reasons to. “They train hard and they do what they’re told. With some kids back home you’ll get attitudes, but these guys just do it,” the coach says proudly.

With most of the players residing outside of the city and traveling from as far as 65 kilometers away daily, the team managed to secure a dorm facility in Saigon in the months leading up to the competition. Training, however, still had its challenges, as Mick notes, “It’s an outdoor sport and we primarily trained in the wet season, so half the time we didn’t have facilities. Also, they play cricket on turf—it’s like clay, grass, and dirt. Here, we play on concrete with a synthetic covering and there’s a massive difference.”

Even covering the travel expenses of the SEA Games was not a foregone conclusion, as he goes on to point out, “We actually funded the trip ourselves by getting a sponsorship from Skechers, who donated the money. Accommodation alone was around USD7,000.”

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Now that the competition is over and  the team waits in limbo to hear if the sport will be included in the 2019 SEA Games, hosted in the Philippines, Mick’s thoughts are on local development. “We need to have a federation set up. That’s on the government and it’s not easy to do, but once we do that we can get the International  Cricket Council to sponsor some money. They’ll pay for some coaches to come over or pay for gear and grounds.”

“We also want to start a Saigon Cricket Club, which would be predominantly Vietnamese-based,” he tells. “It would have a couple of expats on the team. I’d probably play with them and we’ve got a few other guys we’d like to join the club to sort of mentor them through a season or two.”

Finally faced with some downtime, however, Mick’s able to take a minute and look back on the whirlwind that’s taken place this past year. “It was a really good relationship,” he says reflecting on his time with the players. “Some of them sent me messages in Vietnamese after and Thao had to translate them. They were really nice. I hope that the guys got a lot out of it.”

Images by @elblinko