Have spear, will bowl
Kenya's next prominent fast bowler might just turn out to be a man who used his mastery of spear-throwing to hone his bowling action. He grew up herding cattle and on one of his journeys through the Great Rift Valley stumbled across fellow nomads playing a game of cricket. He asked to join them and was taught the basic skills by a South African woman before becoming the captain of her amateur team. His name is Nissan Jonathan Ole Meshami.
These days Meshami is not walking kilometres to find a grazing spot for his family's cows. For the next seven weeks, he is one of 12 Maasai cricketers attending the Legends Cricket Academy training course in Mombasa, Kenya's second biggest city, under the watch of players such as Steve Tikolo, Thomas Odoyo and Jimmy Kamande.
From his first cricket-playing experiences at a school he then could no longer attend because his family could not afford to send him there anymore, Meshami is now part of a select group from the town of Laikipia who are receiving the best coaching the country has to offer. Tikolo and Odoyo started the academy in the coastal city because that's where cricket was introduced in Kenya more than a century ago. Former captain Kamande joined them part-time after being dumped from the national side following a disastrous 2011 World Cup.
"Since I am not playing anymore, I thought that the only way to give back would be to coach," Kamande told ESPNcricinfo. The academy has offered the Maasai a complimentary stay at the facility and the organisers are impressed by what they have seen so far. "I didn't know what to expect from the Maasai cricketers but I have seen that they are very energetic. They know the basics well," Kamande said. Considering cricket was only introduced to their community five years ago, that statement alone is a compliment.
As a pastoralist and largely nomadic people, the Maasai have not had much involvement in organised sport but responded eagerly to the development of a cricket league. It started when Aliya Bauer, a South African scorer, player and coach, was involved in a wildlife conservation project in the region a few years ago. Being away from her home and her favourite sport, Bauer decided the only way she would hear leather on willow was if she taught people to play the game. She brought mini-cricket equipment with her and took the game to the Il Polei Primary School.
At first Bauer included only children in her activities because the older, more conservative Maasai had little interest in her initiative. Slowly, curiosity grew. "The warriors from the local community saw the children in action and they wanted to try their hand at cricket. As more warriors were recruited, we held several regular bi-weekly training sessions and soon we had enough to make a team," Bauer said.
But they had no one to play against for two years. Only in March 2009 was the team able to play their first match. The Dol Dol Boys Secondary School, in the east of Laikipia, had been training without a coach since August 2008 and they were the opposition in the first match the Maasai Cricket Warriors played. They won by 125 runs. Since then, they have played three competitive matches, two against a social team from Tanzania, called the Diks-Diks, who they lost to by three wickets and 12 runs, and one against the Rift Valley Cricket Club, which they also lost, by two runs.
Bauer said their fundamentals let them down in both matches. "They got themselves into winning positions but numerous dropped catches, and poor communication between batting partners, cost them vital wickets." It's these finer aspects of the game as well as overall proficiency that the Legends Academy hopes to develop in the current crop of players.
Kamande said one of the key areas of focus will be rounding the cricket capabilities of the Maasai. "They have very good bowling techniques but we have to work on their batting," he said. The Maasai seem more keen on the former department than the latter, which may be explained by their background.
"Bowling is my greatest asset and my spear-throwing abilities mean I can deliver a cricket ball with some fast pace on it. I also enjoy batting, but nothing is more frustrating than getting out," Meshami said. As a batsman you only get one chance, one life, but as a bowler I have the opportunity to strike with each ball and if I make an error I have the chance to come back and make up for any mistakes."
Allrounder Sonyaga Mike Weblen Ole Ngais has been identified as one of the most talented from the group. "He has very good leadership qualities as well," Kamande said. Ngais is one of the few Maasai to have completed secondary school after obtaining sponsorship from a Catholic Mission, and was even admitted to university but, like Meshami, could not attend because of monetary concerns.
Players such as Ngais are not cut off from education altogether, though. They have qualified as coaches to assist voluntarily in the cricket programme. In total there are 24 Level 1 coaches and 34 introductory coaches who work with the 15 primary schools, five secondary schools, three youth groups and two children's homes where cricket is played. Meshami is one of the coaches and the sense of achievement he has gained from passing the course is obvious. "It was the first time in my life that I have ever received a certificate for anything," he said.
The Warriors also participate in other awareness campaigns, such as HIV/AIDS drives, women's rights projects against female circumcision, and nature conservation initiatives.
As holistic as their cricket has become, they have not lost sight of the primary aim, which is to produce an international cricketer. Expectedly, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of proper facilities and equipment, a common problem affecting many developing cricket nations. "We practise on bare fields which quickly destroy the balls," Bauer said. "Another problem and potential safety issue is getting the guys to wear proper closed shoes. The majority of the Warriors wear sandals made from recycled tyres, which puts them at risk of getting injured. Unfortunately many of the guys simply don't own any other shoes."
Apart from the material aspect, there is also the question of time. The Maasai have to concern themselves with looking after livestock as a means of survival, and can only practise after their daily chores have been completed. "It had not been uncommon to find the cricket field surrounded by livestock, since some of the guys simply bring the animals along so that they can continue to practise," Bauer said.
Despite receiving no financial support from Cricket Kenya, the Maasai have attracted the attention of well-wishers and donors around the world. *The ICC provided them funding in late 2010 to fund a tournament run on World AIDS Day. Cricket Without Boundaries, a UK-based charity which is financially assisted by the ICC, and the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), have also provided assistance. The former agency visited the region twice and held coaching clinics, while BATUK transported some of the cricket equipment that was donated to the Maasai.
BATUK also expressed interest in playing matches against the Maasai. The Maasai team has also been invited to compete in the Last Man Stands amateur Twenty20 league in Cape Town later this year, an event for which they have yet to raise funding for transport and accommodation.
The hope is that after training at the academy some of the Maasai may get an opportunity to further themselves in cricket - be it through sponsorship or a deal with one of the country's franchises. At this stage, that seems nothing more than a dream, but Kamanade said there is every chance that one of the players from Kenya's hinterland will go on to great things. "Whether you are playing in the bush or you are from a city, a red ball is a red ball and cricket is cricket," he said.
*05:58:56 GMT: The article originally stated that the ICC has not supported the Maasai Warriors financially. This has been corrected.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent