Spirit of Africa
The Kenya Cricket Association had cause to be satisfied with their staging of the second ICC Knockout Trophy, a biennial tournament whose purpose is to raise money to help develop cricket in non-Test playing countries.
Conditions at the attractive Gymkhana Club ground in Nairobi were near perfect for one-day cricket, with five good pitches being produced, two matches being played on each one. Given the desert-like state of other grounds in the city following months of the most severe drought in Kenya since 1984, it was something of a miracle that the outfield was in such fine condition. Green almost to the point of being lush, it was also as smooth as a billiard table. Even the shortish boundaries (70 metres either side of the most central pitch and 65 at both ends) made for greater crowd enjoyment as an unusually high number of boundaries were struck.
Andy Atkinson, the ICC pitches consultant and former groundsman at both Edgbaston and Newlands, must take considerable credit for the pitches he produced. Sent to Nairobi in July by the ICC, he managed to improve previously poor carry in the Gymkhana wickets as well as infusing them with extra pace. Some were quite bouncy with the new ball, as well as offering early movement off the seam, before flattening out into ideal one-day belters. There was some turn for the bigger spinners of the ball, with Muttiah Muralitharan, needless to say, obtaining more than anyone else. The 11 captains were unanimous in applauding the pitches they played on.
There were still some disappointments for the hosts. If their preliminary-round elimination at the hands of India was entirely predictable (despite the fact that Kenya did once beat India in a One-Day International, at Gwalior, May 1998, the sparse crowds were more of a surprise. Barely half the 8,000-capacity Gymkhana was full for the Kenya v India tournament opener, with a few more present for the India v Australia quarter-final.
Several matches, such as Sri Lanka v West Indies and New Zealand v Zimbabwe, were watched by more schoolchildren than adults, combining to give attendances of just over 1,000. Perhaps the poor turnout was to be expected, for the KCA undoubtedly set their ticket prices too high, even if they were trying to recoup as much as possible of the £400,000 spent on ground improvements, which included the biggest media centre in world cricket - with only five telephone lines! For the vast majority of people in a country where unemployment runs close to 50 per cent and times are hard, the cost of a stand seat (£19-28) was prohibitive. To black Kenyans, even though the captain, Maurice Odumbe, is one of them, cricket is thought of as an Asian game, and African faces in the crowd were scarce.
Nairobi's reputation for crime prompted the KCA wisely to provide security for any player leaving, for whatever reason, the Intercontinental Hotel, where all 11 teams were housed. Visiting journalists naturally had to fend for themselves, not, it has to be reported, with complete success. A group of three Bangladeshi scribes had just been dropped off at a taxi rank in central Nairobi after the Pakistan v Sri Lanka quarter-final when several thieves robbed them at gunpoint.
Security at the Gymkhana Ground was tight, with Alsatian guard dogs a regular feature. So, too, was some varied on-field entertainment (of the non-cricketing kind) which did not always go to plan.
On the opening day of the tournament, the Kenyan President, Daniel arap Moi, made his welcoming speech out in the middle, flanked by a phalanx of minders, and then bravely elected to face a ball. Lobbed the gentlest of full tosses to smack, the President missed and heard the dreaded death rattle behind him. Cue considerable amusement around the ground - for those whose view was not obstructed by the minders at least.
There was no exotic opening ceremony but some Masai dancers, traditionally dressed, completed a circuit of the outfield. On another day, a parachutist landed with probably the largest national flag ever seen at a cricket ground, a Kenyan one several times the size of his canopy and attached to his foot.
Another source of national pride was the Kenyan team song, a catchy calypso-style ditty produced by native musician Adrian Zagoritis, and featuring Odumbe as lead singer. Played over the PA system in the lunch breaks, it sold like hotcakes, and was even lauded by one of the television commentators, Ian Bishop, a native of the home of calypso, Trinidad.
With most teams afforded the unusual modern-day luxury of time off between games, several took the opportunity to take in some of Kenya's rich wildlife. England spent a morning at Daphne Sheldrick's animal orphanage on the edge of Nairobi National Park, where four orphaned baby elephants and a young rhino are in residence. The Australians were more adventurous, most flying off for a couple of days to the Masai Mara National Park, where the former professional hunter, Ron Beaton, entertained them at his celebrated Rekero camp. Several New Zealand players went north to the magnificent 40,000-acre Lewa Downs game conservancy, situated in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
For Kenya, a beautiful country with so much to offer but one blighted by appalling drought, economic problems, continual power cuts and one of the fastest growing populations in the world, the tournament brought prestige and blessed relief for a fortnight. All that was needed - and desperately so - after it ended was some rain.