March 26, 2011

There's hope for Kenya yet

Peter Starkings
The national team may have embarrassed itself in this World Cup but the talent and enthusiasm for the game across the country are heartening

The last World Cup before this one in which a non-Test-playing nation failed to beat one of the big boys was in the days before coloured clothing. Yet every four years, the emerging nations are faced with the familiar sound of the game's great and good wondering out loud if they should be there in the first place, and it's difficult to know why.

The shock performances of Netherlands, Ireland, and to a lesser extent Bangladesh, against England, have provided this tournament's greatest moments, and through Kevin O'Brien, certainly its most invigorating innings.

A World Cup is not just an exercise in ranking the sport's top eight sides, it should be a celebration of the game, and that means inclusion. But the question itself is a sideshow, a four-yearly teaser. The real question is: where is cricket development going and how can the so-called lesser nations step up?

Take Kenya. Eight years ago they seemed on the brink of real progress. In the semi-finals and on the verge of greatness, the class of 2003 proved to be a false dawn. From that high watermark, development seemed to go in reverse and this year's team never really recovered from their humiliating start against New Zealand. The feelings of many were summed up by team stalwart and surviving hero of 2003, Steve Tikolo, who said Kenyan Cricket was "at its lowest ebb" in an interview with ESPNcricinfo.

But what is it like at the grassroots? After all cricket isn't just about international matches, it's about kids in parks and coaches in schools - people playing the game for fun - as well as those at the top level.

And the same goes for development. In a country like Kenya development is not only about producing first-class players, it's about introducing children to the game, and getting people to pick up a bat for the first time. If you get enough people batting and bowling, eventually quality players will emerge.

This year, for the sixth year, the British HIV/AIDS awareness and cricket charity Cricket Without Boundaries (CWB) returned to Kenya with a team of volunteer coaches, cricket development professionals and as much kit as we could carry. CWB takes projects to countries all over sub-Saharan Africa every spring and autumn with the aim of using the skills of volunteers to help develop cricket in a part of the world where it has so far stubbornly refused to take off. At the same time it delivers an HIV/AIDS awareness message in a corner of the world where over 22 million people are living with the disease.

This February seven English volunteer coaches joined local cricket development officer David Asiji for two weeks of intensive cricket development. Over the 15 days we coached well over 1000 children, qualified 126 new coaches and ran a tournament for 10 schools, 20 teams and 200 children.

There was enough evidence there to provide real hope for the future. In the remote Masaai town of Doldol we saw some of the best natural cricketers you'll find anywhere on the planet. Unbelievable as it sounds, a handful of teenagers there were equipped with better arms than most county pros. In Nakuru we saw children with more enthusiasm for the game than you would among their counterparts in the UK. All over the country we encountered inspiring stories of just how far people in this will part of the world will go to play cricket - sometimes literally, as with countless young coaches who walked for hours for a chance to play.

Tikolo said Kenya's system is one of private members' clubs and limited access, and in the main he's right, but slowly that's changing. Some of those clubs, like the Nairobi Club in the capital, are reaching out into the community and developing young African cricketers in a way that bodes very well for the future. And now there are enterprising new cricket development officers, like Asiji, who are begging and borrowing an hour or two of access for local kids to get into these exclusive facilities for a couple of sessions a week

In the last 12 months Cricket Kenya has taken a giant leap forward in picking people like Asiji and the other full-time regional cricket development officers. They are becoming the driving force for the game in their area, running coaching sessions, qualifying coaches, organising tournaments, and being the point of contact for anyone interested in getting involved.

The next major step for cricket in Kenya is to get the sport on the curriculum and into schools, and that's one of the areas CWB can help. By, twice a year, teaching and qualifying over 100 young trainee teachers to be coaches we can help get those new teacher-coaches into schools, and encourage their employers to give the sport a chance.

So while Kenya's national team seems to be going backwards for the moment, that doesn't feel like the case for the game in the country in general. If Cricket Kenya can harness the natural talent on show and get the sport on the school curriculum there is no telling where the game can go, and the advent of professional regional development officers is a fantastic step in that direction.

Don't be surprised if we start to see the fruits of this labour in the next decade, with a resurgence of the Kenyan national side and the excitement of 2003 returning to this country.

Cricket is immeasurably richer for every new community that takes an interest. The Associates' development might be slow, but the answer isn't to forget about them, it's to give them more of a chance. In Kenya, as for the rest of the world, the road to genuinely competing with the big guns might be long-winding but like other Associates, their time will come again. Cricket should certainly hope it does.

Peter Starkings works with

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gareth on March 28, 2011, 11:04 GMT

    I'm lucky enough to have participated in the latest Cricket Without Boundaries project to Kenya. The enthusiasm for the game, and for life in general, amongst all the kids was incredible. If given a platform to translate their natural athleticism and skills into a more structured coaching system, that guys like David Asiji are currently putting in place, we could see some fantastic cricketers emerge from areas of Kenya that had never previously played cricket.

    On a more basic human level, the picture you see at the top of the article was taken at Nanyuki Orphanage. Out of shot are another 50 children playing various other games of cricket in that field. All are either HIV positive (as all those in Nanyuki Orphanage are) or are former street kids from the neighbouring orphanage. It's difficult to comprehend the life they have experienced, but to be able to introduce cricket, and all the fun and enjoyment it brings was a privilege.

    The cricket community must not give up on Kenya.

  • Andrew on March 28, 2011, 0:02 GMT

    @UndergroundMan - from what I read in a report on Ireland a couple of weeks ago, there is a flood of young talent filtering into County cricket, including a couple of pace bowlers. So I think Ireland can't be compared with Kenya, where they have to create a stand alone structure. I think that Kenya should try & merge their domestic competition with Zimbabwe & Namibia. I think that will lift the profile of the sport & maybe the standard too.

  • Simon on March 27, 2011, 23:27 GMT

    I love articles like this. They show the good side of cricket, of young kids playing and learning the game in school, rather than the incompetence of the I.C.C. and the various egos that ruin the game. Kenya certainly have a lot of talent, they have always been one of the best associates. But if the World Cup has shown anything, nations like Kenya have to play more against full members. If they could be included on the itinerary of a tour of South Africa, then they would get a number of ODIs every year against top class opponents. They could only improve. The same can be said of Afghanistan, Scotland, the Netherlands and of course Ireland.

  • Subterraneo on March 26, 2011, 6:58 GMT

    One major bottleneck faced by nations like Ireland, Kenya and Zimbabwe is ensuring constant flow into the feeding tanks. Kenya reached great heights in 2003 and then slumped when Maurice Odumbe was banned. There simply was no one to take his place. Zimbabwean cricket came crashing down when the 2004 exodus took place. It is possible that the Irish would suffer similar descent if the O'Briens step out or Rankin and Johnson leave. This is where Bangladesh shows robustness. Even when several key players left the national team for the ICL in 2008, replacements were quickly called in. These replacements have roughly been playing constantly in the national team since then, even after the return of the ICL rebels. Perhaps this was a crucial factor in earning Test status. Barring a dismal record in 2001-2003 primarily owing to inept coach appointments, the team has shown unfaltering progress, mixed with a bag of unpredictability that at times alludes to incompetence of the earlier years.

  • Jashanpreet on March 26, 2011, 6:00 GMT

    Great article. Cricket is infact amongst the top 3 sports in Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Nepal (No 1), Afghanistan (No 1), Bermuda, Vanuatu(Top), PNG, Bhutan (Top) and is fastest growing sport in Ireland, USA, Canada. There are numerous opportunities to spread it. ICC as part of FTP should mandate the test teams to play atleast 3 ODI status nations along with grass root development in these various nations. If it goes on then we will see 20 good Test nations over time and not a Test nation like Bangladesh

  • Philip on March 26, 2011, 5:11 GMT

    Cricket is only a rather silly game and one often taken way too seriously, but sometimes it can transcend it's meaninglessness. It is not well understood, even in Oz, that if the disparate colonies hadn't played together against the Poms, the Federation of the nation would have been a different kettle of fish. It may never have even happened at all! In Kenya, as in other parts of Africa, cricket can play a possibly even more important role, at the grass-roots, community level. Lets all hope there's many more photo opportunities like the one at the top of the page. As far as I'm concerned, that means more than who wins the World Cup.

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