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Veteran Kenya allrounder Steve Tikolo made an age-defying comeback recently to help his side reclaim some past glory
December 19, 2013
He had called time on his cricket career after the 2011 World Cup, embarked on a coaching venture, and fallen short of the sort of fitness active players take for granted. But duty called and he responded, despite the protests of his 42-year-old frame.
Every day during the team's training camp in Nairobi, Tikolo was in the nets by 7am. He hit balls on his own for two hours, until the rest of the squad started their scheduled practice. From 9am to 4:30pm, they held nets, fielding sessions and other drills. When they left, Tikolo went to the gym, where he worked until 6pm. He feared if he didn't, he would not be able to keep pace with his younger team-mates.
At the same age, Ryan Giggs still plays professional football; Bruce Fordyce has run seven Comrades Marathons after his 40th birthday. Staying in elite athletic condition is not impossible when you're older, but it is tough, as Tikolo discovered.
"My body was aching after every day and I struggled to get to sleep. But after a few weeks I got used to it," he said. "For my country, I am willing to do anything. I will go to any length."
Unfortunately, his efforts were not enough. Kenya finished in tenth place, failing to qualify for next year's World Twenty20 by a fair distance. Tikolo was their highest run scorer. In another competition, that may have been a personal achievement worth celebrating, but here it served only as an indication that the next generation of Kenyan cricketers is not up to the mark.
For Tikolo, it was a confirmation he had feared. "The previous regime made a big blunder by forcing senior players to retire. That left them with only youngsters, which is criminal. That is the reason our cricket has gone down," he said.
Following the 2011 World Cup, where Kenya failed to win a single match, including against minnows Canada, players such as Jimmy Kamande, Peter Ongondo and Thomas Odoyo were dropped from the team. The administration searched for a new dawn, but without a transition phase, they found themselves in trouble.
The new management, according to Tikolo, has recognised the error of this ideology but are now struggling for a quick fix. So they asked Tikolo to come back in order to assist the development of players, but even his presence could not help them overcome the myriad other problems they face, chiefly involving preparation.
"If you look at the teams who did well, you will see they are vastly different to us. Nepal, for example, have got government support," Tikolo said. "And Papua New Guinea - I was talking to their coach, Paul Strang, who told me they spent 12 weeks playing T20 cricket in Australia before the qualifiers. Compared to us, who were just training in Nairobi, that makes a big difference."
Funding is generally lacking across Africa for cricket. Tikolo identified it as the reason none of Kenya, Uganda - where he coached for ten months - or Namibia were able to qualify for the World Twenty20. "Cricket is the third sport in most of Africa, after football and athletics, so it does not a lot of government funding," he said. "We have to rely on sponsors and ICC money."
For that reason, it is crucial Kenya finish in the top four in January's 50-over World Cup qualifiers. If they don't, they will drop out of the ICC's High Performance Programme and will see even less money in the game. Ending in the top two will get them a spot in the 2015 World Cup.
Tikolo believes Kenya has the talent to get there but need to work on their temperament. "We've got the players who can do it: someone like the new captain, Rakep Patel, and the Ngoche brothers. There's not a lot to be done in terms of skills but it's about mental toughness and dealing with pressure. You could see how we struggled with that at the World Twenty20 qualifiers."
Kenya won three of their seven games but put themselves in positions to do better. In two other matches, against Papua New Guinea and Nepal, they scored over 175, totals that, Tikolo said, "any T20 captain would be happy to defend", but they failed to do that. Their bowlers conceded heavily, which Tikolo put down to a combination of failing to adjust to conditions quickly enough - those were their first two fixtures in the UAE - and nerves.
The only way to fix that is to play as much as possible, in as many different places as possible, but very few Kenyan cricketers have that opportunity. Tikolo is one of a kind in that regard, having played at a time when Kenyan cricket got some exposure. After making his name locally, he was handpicked by a visiting Gloucester team in the 1990-91 season to play club cricket in the UK. He spent two seasons in Swansea, learning to play the swinging ball in English conditions before heading to South Africa for some pace and bounce. He played at Johannesburg's Marks Park and for the provincial side Border, where he faced the likes of Clive Rice.
Tikolo wants to see Kenyan youngsters do the same thing but acknowledges that it is difficult for them to get a chance. "This is where management plays a big part," he said. "They have to help the players get the contacts that can help them play overseas."
Administration is one of the aspects of African cricket that continues to disappoint Tikolo, and he believes it must carry a lot of the blame for the way Kenya performed at the qualifiers. "People want to use the sport to uplift themselves and don't look after players. You don't want players wondering where the next dollar is coming from," he said.
He is open about his battles with the previous Kenyan regime and holds it responsible for stunting development in the country. And he is not alone. Kenneth Kamyuka, a Ugandan who now plays for Canada, blamed administrative issues for his move, saying he did not feel supported enough in his home country.
Infighting has already damaged Kenyan cricket badly. The glory days of 2003 and qualifying for the 2003 World Cup semi-final are the stuff of legend to most of the current crop, and a distant memory for Tikolo. "It makes my heart bleed," he said. "We worked so hard - at one point people were saying we could be the next Test team. And look at where we are now."
All he can do is play his part to get them back there, starting with the 2015 tournament, even if he does not play in it himself - provided they qualify. "It is a long way away. I'd love to be able to leave it to the youngsters," he said. "But if I am needed..."
Then he'll certainly turn up, no matter how old he is.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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