Can Uganda become Africa's second-best side?
Sixty years ago, Uganda played their first cricket match. The details of that game have not been archived and records are unclear on whether their opponents were Kenya or Tanganyika. How the country has performed in international cricket since then is also not well documented.
What is known is that in future, Uganda are likely to be more carefully noted and watched. They will participate in the World Twenty20 qualifiers next year, and are considered one of the most prominent rising Associates. They have caught the eyes of many, including world cricket's longest-serving chief executive, Gerald Majola of South Africa, who believes that in five years' time Uganda could become the second-best team in Africa.
It's a big statement, but not so extravagant if you go by recent performances. Uganda won the Africa Region Division One T20 tournament in Kampala this month, beating Namibia by six wickets in the final and dominating the event, with only two losses in eight matches.
"This has lifted the spirits of the team," Frank Nsubuga, Uganda's senior allrounder, told ESPNcricinfo about the win in Kampala. "It's been good both for the new guys in the team and for us who have been here for a long time. We have finally won something for our country in front of our own fans. It was fantastic."
Nsubuga has been playing international cricket for 14 years; he made his debut for East and Central Africa in the ICC Trophy in 1997. His brothers, opening batsman Roger Mukasa, and wicketkeeper Lawrence Sematimba, also play for the national team. The family lived next to a cricket ground, so the boys had access to the game from a young age and it soon grew on them. All three have played starring roles in Uganda's recent performances, with Nsubuga the man responsible for steering Uganda to victory in the World Cricket League (WCL) Division 3 tournament in Darwin in 2007. He remembers it as "the best place I have ever played cricket."
That victory saw Uganda ranked among the top 10 Associate nations and so become eligible for funding from the ICC High Performance Programme (HPP). The financial support they received from that was instrumental in growing the game in the country, where once there were only concrete pitches. "Facilities improved and we now have three grass wickets which are international standards," Nsubuga said. The money was also used to hire South African coach Shukri Conrad, who had won titles with both the Lions and Cobras franchises.
Conrad was immediately impressed with what he saw. "Uganda are the best fielding side I have ever been involved with," he said. "They are very athletic and they know how to use what they have. "For example, the wickets are very flat there, so you'd have to be a dimwit to run in and bowl from 25 yards out, and they have developed good spinners."
His task was to take Uganda to the WCL Division Two tournament in Dubai in April. The journey was a disaster for Uganda, who won only one match in five. Their losses included a crucial one-run defeat to Papua New Guinea, which condemned them to last place. "The problem was batting. We really struggled to build an innings," Conrad said.
As a result, Uganda dropped out of the top 10 Associate nations and so lost their funding from the HPP. They still receive support from the governing body's development funding policy, and regional funding from the ICC's Africa office, but their exclusion from the HPP meant they could longer afford to keep Conrad. Losing a professional coach set them back, but not so much that they couldn't pull off a series of stunners in the T20 competition. Their success doesn't surprise Conrad at all.
"I always thought 20-over cricket would be their thing, the batsmen," he said. "The batsmen are very aggressive and on their day they can beat anyone."
Conrad is still in touch with many of the players and believes that they are committed to success in all formats of the game. His concern is that the growth they have achieved up to now will be stunted because of the depletion of funds. "The infrastructure is not what it should be," he said. "In a proper structure these guys will do really well.
Nsubuga said that any semblance of that sort of organisation will only materialise when cricket becomes a viable career choice. "Our weakness is the unprofessional part of the game in our country, which hurts continuity of the team," he said. "Most of the young guys are school-going or have full-time jobs. For them to give that up for cricket is hard, but going forward we hope someone can earn decently from cricket. We need professionalism in everything, from the league to the national team"
Some players have found employment in the game in an unlikely place. Lenasia Cricket Club in Johannesburg has had a long involvement with Ugandan cricket and has brought some players from the country into the club to coach in their youth structures and play in the local leagues. The relationship stemmed from the friendship of Hoosain Ayob, ICC Development Officer for Africa, with the late Ahmed Gabru, who was involved with Lenasia. The pair facilitated the passage for Ugandan cricketers to work with their club, and saw to it that the visitors were provided with accommodation and a small stipend during their stay. They also helped Ugandan players collect equipment, either buying it at a sizeable discount or through donations from club players, to take back home.
Both Nsubuga's brothers have played at Lenasia and impressed the locals with their cricketing skills and pleasant demeanours. "They were humble, down to earth and disciplined," Mohsin Ahmed, chairman of Lenasia said. "Roger is a technically sound batsman who has glued our batting together in a few games, and Lawrence is a fantastic keeper. If Uganda can look after them, they will do well."
There is no promise of money for cricket in Uganda yet, with football still the country's most popular sport, but Nsubuga is upbeat that their performances on the field will help grow the structures off it. "Success brings more success, so we have to keep winning," he said. "That will mean we can improve all aspects of the game, from facilities to playing staff, and we will be able to expose our players to top-level cricket."
The World T20 qualifiers could open the door for that to happen. It will be the team's most important tournament, after the 2009 World Cup qualifiers, in which they placed last. They will come up against 15 other teams, all of whom are fighting for just two places in the global event. Among them will be fellow East Africans Kenya, who Uganda appear to be surpassing as Africa's next hopefuls, and Associate heavyweights Afghanistan, Ireland and Scotland.
Whatever the results, they are sure to be recorded better than they were in that match in 1951, and could well prove to be the way Uganda announces itself to the cricketing world.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent