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August 1, 2008
The venue is Cranleigh School, the occasion a warm-up for Kenya's cricketers ahead of the World Twenty20 Qualifier in Belfast. Nestled on the Surrey-Sussex border, surrounded by acres of high-quality pitches and the best equipment, it is a far cry from the makeshift and often decrepit facilities that Nairobi offer. An idyll, belying the pressure on Kenya and their new coach, Andy Kirsten.
We meet under the pavilion canopy with Kenya batting against a side led by Abeed Janmohamed, himself a former pupil of the school and Kenyan wicketkeeper. As Kenya's batsmen come and go with worrying frequency, Kirsten casts his eye around the manicured lawns and professionally prepared squares. "This is unbelievable," he says, taking a moment away from scoring the match on his laptop. "In Kenya, it's not a rich cricketing nation in terms of what's available, but we have to make the best of what little is available. For example when we come here and see this magnificent structure for nets, we don't have that. Every time we want a net, it's a manual operation for a couple of guys to erect some nets with old wooden poles. There's nothing permanent. There's always a procedure to be done."
Kirsten has only been in the job since May, replacing the highly respected Roger Harper, who was as much a friend to players as their coach. But even in Associate cricket, there is little time to bed in. His side are on a six-week tour of Britain and the Netherlands, in which they have to qualify for the World Twenty20 next year as well as improve on their fifth-placed position in the Intercontinental Cup. The pressure is tangible, made all the more so by Kenya's insipid performance in front of us. They are thrashed by five wickets.
Belfast looms large. The two finalists from Qualifier will gain automatic entry into next year's Twenty20 World Cup, and there could yet be a third Associate spot if Zimbabwe's opt out is confirmed. These are precarious times for Kenya, the leading Associate for a decade or more, but the gap has closed quickly.
"Things did go downhill after the 2003 World Cup," Kirsten says. "There was a nice platform but it all went down. One of my roles is to get us back to that level in 2003. I'm not talking about being a semi-finalist, but regularly beating the Associates, which hasn't happened. Countries like Ireland and Scotland have closed the gap. We need to win the Twenty20 qualifier and the Intercontinental Cup and we need to beat a Test nation at next year's World Cup."
Beating a Test nation will always be the goal for Associates, yet to achieve such lofty dreams, they have to play them in the first place. Associates face eachother regularly but rarely are they given the chance of testing themselves against the likes of India, England and Australia. For all the merits of the Intercontinental Cup, of which Kirsten is a big supporter, the standard of cricket fluctuates so greatly that Kenya can be found lurking at fifth place in this year's competition and Namibia top. The shortest form of the game, however, gives the likes of Kenya a greater chance of upsetting the big guns of world cricket.
"It allows smaller opposition a better chance of winning a game. All these guys can hit the ball as well as Test team players can, and maybe it's the day it comes off," Kirsten says, just as another wicket falls. "Lesser opposition have a greater chance - I'm talking about quality when I say that. Twenty20 is a nice arena for [us] to compete in. Obviously the skills are still in their infancy, the various skills required are going improve as time goes on, and perhaps at that stage Test nations will widen the gap again."
|I would also love to see a two-division system with promotion and relegation in Test cricket, and have a yearly championship. The bottom nation in the first division gets relegated, and the top side in the second get promoted. Something along those lines would give the Associates a chance to play the bestAndy Kirsten|
But it is the four-day Intercontinental Cup which Kirsten favours the most. "I'm a traditionalist and the proper version of cricket is three, four or five days long. I'd be very unhappy if the Intercontinental Cup was taken away. For these nations it's a wonderful opportunity to play that format of the game and to travel and see other countries. It's the closest to a Test match they'll get, and that's absolutely vital. It would even be nice to have an Associate-level Intercontinental Cup running on the same basis as Test cricket, that would be fantastic.
"I would also love to see a two-division system with promotion and relegation in Test cricket, and have a yearly championship. The bottom nation in the first division gets relegated, and the top side in the second get promoted. Something along those lines would give the Associates a chance to play the best."
As the Kenyans peel off their sweaters, braving England's summer sun, wickets continue to tumble against the might of Cranleigh. Frustration kicks in for the first time from Kirsten. "Still plenty of time, guys," he calls to the last five batsmen waiting on the benches. "Patience. Loads of time."
Like his predecessor Harper, Kirsten is quietly spoken, not one for public rollickings or grand gestures. It worked well for Harper, a man of immense personal discipline and honour, but only results can judge whether Kirsten is the right man to lead Kenya through these uncertain times. And it isn't simply matters on the field which affect Associate cricket.
"The ICC have pumped money into getting their coaching and high performance programmes in place, but I'd like them to put someone in charge of the administration of cricket in Associate countries. The cricketing people doing the admin love the game, which is fine, but we need to professionalise that side of the set-up too. The people running it don't always have the time or the knowledge - and that's no disrespect to those in charge - for getting structures in place. Getting the admin role of things up to the standard to which it can support the players is vital."
For someone so new to his job, Kirsten already has a cynicism and awareness of the flabby framework on which Associate cricket rests so precariously. Administration is one underrated aspect of all cricket that, some might say, needs radical overhaul, but Kenya simply need to win more regularly against better opposition. The World Twenty20 offers Associates unprecedented riches, but the likes of Kenya need to beat their own size before challenging the giants.