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