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I've been in Uganda for two weeks with the HIV/AIDS charity Cricket Without Boundaries. Along with a seven-man team, I have coached cricket to almost 1000 children, and over 100 teachers, in three different locations from many different schools, raising HIV awareness along the way. We've driven the length and breadth of the country, covering close to 1000 miles, seeing things that not even our wildest imaginations could ever have considered possible.
Potential. Potential is the word that, more than any other, I can associate with my two weeks of travel around Uganda. It's a strange choice of a word, really. Like Africa, Uganda is burdened with grotesque levels of poverty, diseases and viruses. It's a continent blighted by governmental corruption and a sickeningly large divide between rich and poor. But potential is the word that comes to mind. The potential I refer to is not just cricketing potential - it is national potential.
The population is vast: 32 million to be precise. Every road is lined with shacks, some the size of a photo booth, clad in rusting corrugated iron, interminable rows of them housing entire families. Bricks are everywhere, too; piles of them lying by the road - a shadow of capability. Uganda, very much a developing country, remains just a push, shove and an inspiration away from a housing boom. When the population's general wealth increases, the desire to live in a functioning house will be swift and radical. Talking of buildings, they too are everywhere. But almost always half complete; perhaps the money ran out or the demand just isn't there yet. But these houses just sit and wait for a strong, rich Uganda - windowless, doorless, roofless. Spectres of prosperity.
The roads themselves are an illustration of the potential of Uganda. The roads are manic, dangerous, hectic and simply crazy, but are also a sporadic connection for a network of disconnected people. Furthermore, Chinese branding appears everywhere; it seems they have spotted a worthwhile investment in Uganda. It's easy therefore to understand why some people believe Africa will be the India of the 21st century. From rags to riches, poverty to profit, it sure seems quite a way off, but Africa as an economic superpower isn't the fantasy many perceive it to be. So what of the cricket?
Well, to say I was surprised was an understatement. The talent wasn't surprising as much as the discrepancy between talent and facilities. There was the boundless enthusiasm amongst children which is now synonymous with Africa generally. But more than that, there was ability - the huge throwing arms, the diving catches, the natural timing, the high elbows, the pace, the athleticism. Many of the kids we taught hadn't even heard of cricket, let alone play it. Yet, many took to the sport like a duck to water.
Then there were the facilities or, more appropriately, the lack of them. There are seven cricket nets in Uganda. Some schools in England have seven nets, many English towns will have seven nets. The number of nets in some counties and states will be closer to 700 than seven. This extraordinarily low number is both an indication of the state of Uganda, and the position of cricket as a sport in the country. Football is the national sport. Many people live, breathe and sleep football, there are Premier League shirts worn in every pub, club and bar and entire channels are dedicated to football. When there is a big football match, as one man put it, "Uganda shuts down."
Twenty20 cricket will be the future for nations such as Uganda, which don't have any first-class cricket. The shortest format has the capabilities to engender a football-like following in the country and, more importantly, it is where the big money lies.
But cricket can take hope from this. Football offers some 30,000 disenchanted people something binding and real. While cricket will always suffer from its age-old problem of accessibility, on the basis of these two weeks, it can be said that the talent and enthusiasm for cricket is in abundance. Furthermore, aspirations in the country are high. Uganda are currently ranked 22nd in the ICC rankings, and hold genuine hopes of competing in the World T20 at some point in the future. Juma Gabula, a Ugandan under-19 player who travelled around the country with us, joked dreamily of a Ugandan player eventually playing in the Indian Premier League.
This is revealing in itself. Twenty20 cricket will be the future for nations such as Uganda, which don't have any first-class cricket. The shortest format has the capabilities to engender a football-like following in the country and, more importantly, it is where the big money lies. However, the development of the Ugandan economy is crucial to the development of cricket, which needs money to function. It is an expensive sport. Even players in the national team don't have individual kits, and a par score in a T20 at the national stadium is just above 100. Pitches are expensive to maintain, coaches must be paid and nets provided - and that's just at a national level. The country needs to be connected, and accessible, because for all we know the next great Ugandan cricketer could be trapped in a rural village 100 miles from the nearest cricket ground.
Having spent many hours coaching kids across Uganda, my thoughts are largely focused on legacy. How many of the kids will play cricket again? What impact will the coaching side of our work have? Although we left cricket sets at many schools, a sustainable cricket following is difficult to instigate unless the money in the sport increases. But those thoughts take me to that word again: potential. Whether Uganda's or Africa's economy eventually does make it big, and the same stands for their cricket team, I can right now at least take warmth and hope from a country and a continent that possesses staggering potential.
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