February 20, 2011

Kenya's young beacon

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Seren Waters is a poster boy for all Associate nations struggling to hold their place in international cricket against the ICC's indifference. May he light up this World Cup

The extent to which Kenya have regressed as a cricketing force can be seen from their fortunes at the World Cup. Two tournaments ago, in 2003, they reached the semi-finals and were being talked up as a possible 11th Test nation, but in the intervening years they have been chastised for their lack of investment in grassroots cricket as well as their questionable selection policy. Nevertheless their youthful squad of players, residing both in and outside the country, indicates a willingness to rebuild and move forward. And no one symbolises this new approach more than their opening batsman Seren Waters.

Kenya have nine players embarking on their maiden World Cup, in a 15-man squad that also contains the experienced heads of 39-year-old Steve Tikolo and 32-year-old Thomas Odoyo (both set to play in their fifth campaigns). While speaking to Waters, with his straight-talking, composed demeanour, it is easy to forget he is one of the new boys. Only his fearlessness is the hallmark of youth.

"It hasn't been the best couple of years for Kenya cricket in terms of results," he reflects. "We have some very talented players out there and on any given day I think we can play some exceptional cricket. I don't think there is much point going into a World Cup being daunted at the prospect of facing the bigger nations."

Waters left Kenya at 13 to enrol at Cranleigh School in Surrey, before going on to study Human Geography at the University of Durham (where he is part of the MCCU set-up). In that time his cricket went from strength to strength; beginning at the Kongonis Cricket Club in Nairobi, he went on to represent Surrey through the age groups (scoring a double-hundred on debut for Surrey Under-17s in 2008) and ended his school career with a record-breaking 900-odd runs in his final season. It was only a few months after leaving Cranleigh that he received his first call-up to the full Kenyan side to face Ireland in an ODI at his home ground.

"I hadn't really even considered coming anywhere near playing at international level," he says. "I then had this opportunity to play for Kenya and it all happened so quickly, in the space of a few months. I got chucked in and while I was out there I realised that I could actually do this and I wasn't particularly out of my depth."

An accomplished 41 off 74 balls at the top of the order on debut was impressive - a maiden half-century (74) against a strong South African side in Kimberley, in only his fourth ODI, was imperious.

"I've stepped up levels all through my career - from school to university, to then playing for Surrey. Of course I was nervous, but in the first game against South Africa I think I got rid of some of the nerves of playing these massive players, but I only got 15. In the second game, in Kimberley, I hit a couple for fours and started to really believe I could handle myself at this level.

"I've been going my whole life watching it on TV and thinking, 'There's no way I can do that,' but once I was out there, it felt like I belonged there. And then Jacques Kallis runs in to bowl!"

It is the impressive manner of Waters' performances at each elevation in class that has given the Kenyan management no qualms in burdening him with the responsibility of holding their World Cup campaign together. In the last month he has excelled in such a role scoring two centuries, one on their tour of India, against the Gujarat Cricket Association XI (the only Kenyan player to do so) and an impressive 126 not out against Netherlands in their last warm-up match, in Colombo.

It was that Netherlands knock in particular that displayed his affinity for the role of anchor: he faced 150 deliveries (with a strike-rate of 84) and looked a compact, classy stroke-maker.

"I'm not someone who can go out there and blast 70 off 40 balls," he says. "I've played more three- and four-day cricket, so I've been trying to adapt my game to suit my one-day role. I haven't got as much flair as the other batsmen at the top of the order, who are more natural power-hitters, and with spin playing quite a prevalent role in the subcontinent, I've had to try and work out different scoring areas to what I might be used to."

Those who have worked closely with Waters are quick to point to his professional approach to all aspects of the game. Comparisons have been drawn with Rahul Dravid and Mahela Jayawardene in his poise and unflustered nature at the crease; these two players give you the impression that they have an eternity to play some of the best bowlers in the world. Waters would do well to take note: he is set to face the likes of Shaun Tait, Brett Lee, Lasith Malinga and Shoaib Akthar - all armed with the new ball.

"I've never really faced anyone as quick as these bowlers, so I don't really know what to expect," he says. "I've done a bit of work with a bowling machine at 90mph but that doesn't really prepare you to go out in the middle and face these players."

Should Waters continue his rise through the ranks, Kenya's biggest struggle as an Associate nation will be keeping hold of him - he also qualifies for England. Full-member nations provide greener pastures, brighter stages and, more importantly, stability (though not necessarily - just ask Ed Joyce). Unsurprisingly the young Kenyan is wise to the opportunities that a good World Cup would bring; having been awarded summer contracts with Surrey for the last couple of seasons, a full-time county contract would almost certainly be in the offing. Talk of being tempted by England is instantly dismissed, but the lure of Test cricket may prove too juicy a carrot to pass up.

"For me, Test cricket is the best format of the game. It's what I enjoy watching and I believe it's the purest form," he says. "Kenya is my home and growing up there helped me achieve everything that I have today. To turn my back on that would be disrespectful. If one day the opportunity arises that I have a chance of playing Test cricket for England then I would have to consider it, but the thought of pushing Kenya aside for my own selfish gain is not something that sits well with me."

The ICC's decision to curb the participation of associate nations in the 2015 World Cup has been a major talking point in the few days leading up to the 2011 openers. The performances of the minor countries will come under greater scrutiny, with the more cynical onlookers inclined to believe that the ICC will be hoping they falter unceremoniously, thus justifying their outlook.

The Associate nations will need to show the bigwigs that they have a part to play in such showcase events. That will be heavily reliant on impressive performances and consistent signs of improvement. The fortunes of Waters will be indicative of this. One (more) giant step-up for the likes of him could mean one sheepish u-turn for the ICC.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a freelance writer, found regularly at sport.co.uk. His Twitter feed is here