May 13, 2008

Matches more than money

Kenya have little chance of getting better unless they are allowed to play among the game's top ten

Steve Tikolo batting during the 2007 World Cup. Where will the next generation of Kenyan cricketers come from? © Getty Images

Much is spoken about the expansion of the international game, and if, as expected, proposals for a significant increase in funding for the Associates is approved when the ICC meets in June, then their progress should be further boosted.

But cash and goodwill can only go so far. What is widely agreed is that to improve, the leading Associates need to play more, and against the elite top ten Full Member countries. And that is where the problems come.

A casual glance at the international schedule will show that the major countries are on an almost constant global tour. In part this is because of the requirements of the Future Tours Programme, but more often than not the large gaps in that schedule are filled with lucrative one-day tours or tournaments.

In an ideal world, there would be time for India or England to undertake ambassadorial tours to Kenya or the Netherlands. But given the choice between a lucrative three-match series against commercially attractive opposition containing star names or a trip to a cricketing outpost in Africa or Europe, it's not a contest.

Kenya are the leading Associate, and the only country outside the top ten to have a professional side. Until 2005 they had full ODI status in their own right. Scotland and Ireland are there or thereabouts with a slick board structure and established leagues. The Netherlands are just about keeping in touch. Underneath these, there is a fairly significant gap to the chasing pack. What all four have in common is that they struggle to get games against the big boys.

Scotland and Ireland have a geographical advantage in that their proximity to England means it is easier for touring sides to tack on an extra game or two against these two, as shown by the news that Australia will play them in 2009 and 2010. They also benefit from participating in England's domestic 50-over tournament, which gives them an extra eight games a summer.

The Netherlands may only be a short hop across the English Channel, but in cricketing terms, they might as well be at the other end of Europe. They have only once lured a side to add games in Holland to their itinerary - when Sri Lanka played two ODIs there in 2006.

Kenya, despite reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2003, have had no luck in convincing senior boards that they are worth a game or two. If you ignore the World Cup and the ICC Trophy, into which they had automatic admission until 2006, in the five years since their World Cup semi-final, they have played only one three-ODI series against a Full Member country at home, against Bangladesh in 2006. No other Full Member has been willing to take time out to visit. In the last five-year period Kenya have only played 13 ODIs against Full Members, ten of those in a frantic month in 2006 when they toured Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Their last ODI against a Full Member, again Bangladesh, was in August 2006. They haven't played one country in the top eight.

Without experience and exposure playing better sides, Kenya cannot get better. In fairness to Bangladesh, they have done their bit, but the approach of Kenya's fellow African nations leaves much to be desired.

South Africa have not played Kenya in Africa for six-and-a-half years, and although they were supposed to meet in two ODIs in Durban in June, these have now been postponed by Cricket South Africa. Few inside Kenya were remotely surprised.

Zimbabwe, Africa's other top-ten nation, last met Kenya at home in 2006, when the sides drew 2-2, and since then Zimbabwe Cricket has continuously stalled over a return series. Suspended from Test cricket, they do not even have the excuse of being too busy: their next scheduled series is not until November. The widespread suspicion is that they are afraid that they might lose if they play away. In fairness, they did host a Kenyan development side in their 2007 Logan Cup.

There is some hope in that regard as Zimbabwe have recently indicated that they are willing to travel to Kenya in July. Time will tell if assurances are converted into an actual series or if this is yet another false dawn.

There have been some A-team tours, with the Asian boards being far more willing to help in that regard than others, and Pakistan A are due there later this year. But there is nothing like seeing familiar names playing in your own country to stir interest in the game. The sight of a Kevin Pietersen or Sachin Tendulkar will put bums on seats and stir up media interest.

There is also the financial aspect. Last year, Cricket Kenya signed a lucrative TV deal which is dependent on it hosting a home series every year. In theory, that is not a difficult requirement, but with no matches in the pipeline, concerns are being raised over the contract.

The paucity of matches is not through a want of trying from the Kenyan authorities, but positive noises from other boards have rarely been translated into games. Noises have been made about security issues, and the disruption which followed the disputed presidential elections in December will have set Cricket Kenya back years.

So Kenya will plod on and keep knocking at the door. As things stand, they will not have played one major ODI in the year leading up to the crucial World Cup Qualifier in early 2009. With only four places up for grabs at the 2011 World Cup, this will severely hamper their chances.

ICC money can only do so much. Without high-profile matches, improvement will be slow and grassroot development immensely difficult. The chances of Kenya being allowed to join the party, for even one dance, seem as bleak as ever.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo