Taking Africa to the next level
Freetown is home to 1.2 million people, 12 radio stations, 11 of the most beautiful, unspoiled beaches in Africa, eight of the country's 15 premier league football clubs, and one cricket field.
"There's no grass, the outfield is gravel and the pitch is concrete," Ibrahim Kamara, a Sierra Leone allrounder, says. It explains why their players were at first hesitant to dive or slide on the surface they were greeted with in Benoni, where they competed in the Africa Premier League Division Two tournament two weeks ago.
Sierra Leone were a team with plenty to prove, and they approached the competition with fitting intensity and determination. Cricket is perhaps the fastest growing sport in the country, with many aspiring national players seeing it as a way to represent the nation without the competition that comes with trying to play football at the highest level. "We've seen that if you train hard and you do well in cricket, you get picked for the national team and you get the opportunity to be exposed to different countries and travel," Kamara said.
Jet-setting has been a part of his life for the past decade since he first started playing cricket. A school coach asked him to give cricket a try while he was waiting for his turn to play in a football match. "[He] said I had good hand-eye coordination, and I was picked for the national team soon after that, when I was 18." Kamara participated in the Under-19 Africa Cup and has been on seven tours outside Sierra Leone. Despite his extended involvement with the team, though, he is not a professional sportsman. He is a soldier and he plays for the army club cricket team.
As soon as he mentions his involvement in the military, he clarifies it, wanting to make sure it is understood that Sierra Leone is now a place of calm, having emerged from a civil war nine years ago. "There is perfect peace, no disturbance" he says, adding that he has never been involved in a conflict situation. Violent crime is rare in Sierra Leone, with the biggest legacy of the strife being the poverty that it left behind. It means, however, the government has to be concerned with things other than providing cricket facilities.
Sierra Leone's cricketers encounter turf pitches only when they travel outside, and making the adjustment is still proving tricky for them. "The ball moves faster on the concrete, so when we play away from home we end up pitching the ball too short," Kamara said. The bowlers are learning to adjust their lengths, though, and trying to build on their new skills when they get home.
The competition in Benoni was also the team's first foray into 20-over cricket, which required adjustment of a different sort. Kamara said the batsmen prefer the 50-over format because it allows them more time to "build an innings". They still performed admirably in the tournament, only losing three out of seven games, to Nigeria and Ghana, the two teams going forward to Division One, and to competition favourites Botswana.
One of the reasons for Sierra Leone's success is the arrival of Peter Kirsten as a consultant on the recommendation of Cassim Suliman, the chief executive of the Africa Cricket Association. Kirsten spent two weeks in Freetown, a place he describes as "pleasantly chaotic", with the national team before their trip to Benoni. One of his first tasks was to take two players, one being Kamara, and turn them into spinners, because most bowlers in the country wanted to be quicks.
Kirsten has been involved with African cricket for the better part of the last two years, first as batting consultant to Kenya, then as coach of Zambia and now with Sierra Leone. His tenure with Zambia ended after they were suspended because of financial irregularities before they were scheduled to play in the same Division Two tournament; they have lost their affiliate status pending investigations.
"The players [from Zambia] are traumatised. They keep calling me to ask how they can take their cricket forward," Kirsten said. It's an answer Kirsten can't provide at the moment, but it's an issue that concerns him, especially now that he is so involved with African cricket. It's not a glamorous job, but it's one Kirsten wants.
He is not put off by the lack of nets or pitches or the players misunderstanding the rules of the game. Instead, he has been captivated by the potential in the continent. "Africa is a big market," he says. The game has received commercial interest in recent years in Sierra Leone. Kirsten points to his shirt sleeve, which has the branding of internet service provider Limeline. The company recently came on board as a sponsor to the team, and their funding will assist in the buying of equipment from countries like South Africa.
Financial support is a key ingredient to the success of any sport, and Sierra Leone look to Nigeria as an example. Cricket is thriving in the wealthy West African country, and the Nigerian team have just come through their most successful two months, having qualified for the World Cricket League Division Six the week before winning the Division Two Twenty20 competition.
It's a little-known fact that cricket is the oldest sport in Nigeria; the first official international there was played in 1904, almost two decades before the country first played in a formal football match. The team are aware and proud of their history and are fortunate enough to be financially capable of making sure the sport keeps growing. On their recent trip to South Africa, they bought equipment they cannot get at home, in particular white balls, and bats.
Nigeria have lofty goals. Sean Philips, their South African-born middle-order batsman and coach says, "In five or six years Nigeria should be able to compete in the World Twenty20." To achieve those aims, they will need to make sure their equipment is up to standard, that they start playing on turf pitches more, and that they capture and maintain the interest of top businesses and stakeholders back home, which seems to be happening.
"Both recent tournaments created a buzz back home," Philips said. "People were following the games on the internet and wanted to know how we were doing." Nigeria is one of only six African countries where more than 25% of the population use the internet, which allows the people there to connect with the game in ways that those in other countries on the continent cannot.
Kirsten watched the Nigerian team with interest, especially their match against Ghana, the event's marquee clash. "What they lack in skills and facilities is made up for by their desire and love of the game," he said. "They have rich traditions in the sport that if I had not been exposed to, I would never have known." These proud legacies run deep, both in nations who have inherited cricket as part of their British colonial legacy and those who adopted it, like Mozambique and Rwanda.
Both were in attendance at the tournament. Mozambique had secured the coaching services of Ahmed Amla, Hashim's brother. Rwanda won only one match, while Mozambique won two, but their excitement at being part of a multi-team event bubbled over. Amla said that the highlight for his team was playing on the Willowmore Park main field, instead of the adjacent grounds, because they had not played in a stadium of that size before.
Compared to the gravel outfield in Freetown, even the humble ground in Benoni seemed like a theatre of dreams.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent