'Players know consistency will be the criterion for national selection'
In a bid to strengthen their domestic game, Cricket Kenya organised two franchise-based regional competitions, the East African Premier League, a Twenty20 tournament, and the East African Cup, played over 50 overs, in August. Two teams from Uganda joined in. Tom Sears, Cricket Kenya's chief executive, spoke to ESPNcricinfo about the quality of contest, the dominance of the Ugandan teams, the future of the competitions, and more
What are your general thoughts on the East Africa competitions so far?
The competitions have gone very well up to this point. There have obviously been one or two teething problems, and we have learned from some of the issues that have arisen, but these are all relatively minor operational issues. The important thing is that the competitions are up and running. We have delivered the events we set out to, and over time we expect the events to grow and standards on and off the field to improve.
Is the standard higher than in the Nairobi Province Cricket Association [NPCA] leagues? The East African tournaments were meant to be a step up from that.
The way we have structured the season, in conjunction with the provinces, NPCA in particular, there is still competitive cricket being played at a lower level than the EAC. That was always a priority, to ensure there has been minimal disruption to the season for all cricketers, and we are grateful to the provinces for their cooperation.
In terms of standard, it's fair to say there is a lot of room for improvement. I think as we see the competition reach the latter stages, standards will improve. We still need our senior and established players to perform at a higher level on a consistent basis, which hasn't been the case. There have been some very encouraging performances from some younger players, and some players have come into the reckoning for higher honours as a result of what they have been doing, and that was a key factor behind the events.
Do you feel it is providing a better platform for the national team and giving those squad players a better test?
I think it has given clarity to what players need to achieve. Players who have been playing well have been given an opportunity. It will take time, but now that we have these competitions in place, players know what the national selection panel is looking for. That puts the onus on consistent performance. Players who do that will get recognition at the national level, as we have already seen.
Which players have stood out so far? And is there anyone knocking on the door of the national side as a result?
Young players like Irfan Karim, Rakep Patel, Emmanuel Bundi and Lucas Oluoch have all shown their quality and potential, and were involved in the recent series of matches in the Netherlands. Seamer Ibrahim Akello also earned his first call-up on the back of some strong showings and is now training with the national team regularly, as are Ramesh Mepani and Rajesh Varsani, who have also produced good performances. Hiren Varaiya has led the Rift Valley Rhinos very well and seems to have thrived on the responsibility, which is very encouraging.
The previous attempt to start a top-flight league failed because players did not support it. Has that been a problem this time round?
So far the competitions have been well received by players, and players who have not made the squads are disappointed, which is a good indicator that it is now seen as the competition to play in. Again, the clarity that good performances will be acknowledged at a higher level will ensure that players who have aspirations to play for Kenya will want to be involved.
Another problem historically has been the facilities. Have the pitches been good enough to allow players to perform to the best of their abilities?
Overall the pitches have played well, the grounds selected to host matches have provided good surfaces, and we have plans to invest further to ensure we can provide as high a standard as possible in the future.
The former internationals who refused central contracts are now not playing for their franchises. Is this likely to change, if not this year then next? And was this a Cricket Kenya decision?
The decision not to select the players who failed to turn up for matches was taken by their teams, not Cricket Kenya. Dialogue is on-going with the players involved, and it would be good to think there can be some sort of positive outcome.
Both competitions seem to be fairly equal, the exception being the poor performances of Coast Pekee. What's gone wrong there and what can be done to help them in year two? Is there an argument that there are too many sides?
I think it was very important to have a side based on the Coast, which traditionally has been a strong area for cricket in Kenya. They have a good batch of young players who have yet to display their potential. They need to put in the work required to ensure they do. The first weeks of the competition will have opened their eyes to the levels they need to reach, and over the next few weeks they need to start demonstrating they are capable of playing at this level.
The national media in Kenya has not given the leagues much coverage, although in Uganda they have. Is this a concern? What can you do to raise that profile?
It is disappointing that we haven't received more coverage, but things are improving. The two main papers, the Nation and the Standard, are starting to carry more. The live matches on Supersport are beginning, and as the competitions reach a climax we will be working hard to try and ensure coverage improves. We are being proactive in sending out regular previews, all scorecards and summaries, and we are looking at what more we can do.
As the CEO of Cricket Kenya, are you concerned a Ugandan side is dominating both competitions?
Obviously I would like to see the Kenya teams performing better than they are. There have been some good displays but not enough. I hope our players will learn from the intensity and commitment that the Ugandan teams have shown because it is very clear how highly they value playing in these competitions and their determination to succeed. More of our players need to reach that level.
What have you learned? What would you do differently in the second year?
There are always lessons to be learned, but overall we are pleased with the way things have gone. At the end of the competitions we will conduct a full review, with everyone involved: the teams, umpires, players, coaches, media, and look carefully at the areas where we can improve, and make sure next year's competition is a step forward.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa