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Namibia's inconvenient truth

JJ Smit was the pick of the bowlers with three wickets IDI/Getty

As Oman were overtaken by delirium, unable to comprehend their ascent to the 2016 World T20 in India, Namibia's players stood ashen-faced and motionless. Words were not spoken, for there was nothing to say, only failure to comprehend. On a gloomy July day in Ireland, Namibia had relinquished their only realistic chance of reaching a world event this decade.

So when Stephan Baard, Namibia's new captain, watches the country in the ongoing rugby World Cup, he can be excused for feeling a little jealous. "It just makes the pain of missing out on a World Cup even harder to handle," he reflects. "It was definitely the most disappointing moment of my cricketing career, as it was for most of the players."

Namibia's defeat to Oman in the qualifying playoff for the 2016 World T20 continued a trend of losing at crux moments of qualifying tournaments. The 2003 World Cup remains Namibia's only appearance in a global event. "We haven't always coped with the pressure as well as we wanted to in those big crunch games," Baard says. "As they always say, the team that panics first will lose the game. That has been our downfall in the past."

In many ways the story of Namibian cricket is the story of a few families. The Kotze brothers played alongside the Burgers in the 2003 World Cup (the third Burger, Jan-Berrie, was not a relation). In Ireland, Sarel Burger played with the Scholtz and Snyman brothers.

If it all seems rather charming, perhaps it should not. The reason the Namibia side has such a familial feel is that it is almost completely dependent on the white population to form its cricket team. Every member of the country's squad for the World T20 Qualifiers was white, though the white population is only 150,000 out of over two million.

While the results achieved by such a small group are impressive, Namibian cricket is on a road to nowhere unless it can engage the wider population. At least Cricket Namibia belatedly recognises as much. A year ago Donovan Zealand was appointed as their first non-white chief executive. He says there was "definitely" institutionalised racism in Cricket Namibia in the past, and a complete failure to take cricket beyond the white community.

"The short-sightedness of administrators and coaches should be blamed, as the focus was never on expansion and development but more on the small crop of elite players," Zealand says. "Cricket in the past was mainly driven by parents who were more concerned with the development of their own children rather than taking the game to the masses.

"It's going to be a long process. As much as one wants to accelerate the process it will never be easy. Currently our junior teams are much more representative than in the past. However, we need to look after those players in the system. Unfortunately, the reality is that most black players do not have the much-needed support structures and we have the responsibility to create them. Past administrators did not comprehend that critical part."

The challenge is all the greater given that Namibia have far less by way of funds than Full Members do. Cricket Namibia will not be able to expand the game beyond the white community without maintaining their on-field performances, on which their funding from the ICC is dependent, Zealand says. "The process will not be about changing white players with black players but rather levelling the playing field to allow everyone to compete for positions in all teams."

For all the disappointment of missing the World T20, at least Namibia do not suffer from a dearth of fixtures. As well as participating in the Intercontinental Cup and World Cricket League Championship, they have competed in the second tier of South African domestic cricket since 2006.

The experience has often been unforgiving. It has not helped that, with only nine players on contracts (and fewer in previous years), Namibia have often had to field a weakened side. But Zealand enthuses about the benefits of playing in South Africa. "Giving younger players the opportunity to apply their craft in that competition affords us the opportunity to expand our pool of players and to groom the next bunch of national players."

Still, even this opportunity was not enough to persuade Christi Viljoen, a fast-bowling allrounder who scored 98 for the ICC Combined Associate and Affiliate XI against England in 2012 and was widely regarded as Namibia's best player, to stick around. A year ago he moved to New Zealand, and now trains with the Otago Volts squad.

New Zealand coach Mike Hesson, who has seen Viljoen bowl, is impressed. Had Namibia been able to pick Viljoen for the World T20 Qualifier, they could have boosted their chances of qualifying. Though left-arm spinner Bernard Scholtz was the leading wicket-taker in the qualifier, Namibia's seam attack is bereft of variety without Viljoen, brimming with right-armers bowling at a pace that would not perturb even a motorway speed camera.

Viljoen's departure speaks of the challenges both Namibia and the wider Associate world face. "I don't think Namibia will ever get the chance to play Test cricket, and that is the highest level for me," he says. The ICC's decision to contract the World Cup to ten teams also "helped a lot in making the decision" to quit Namibia.

Should he get a full-time contract with Otago when he becomes eligible to play as a local after this year, Viljoen will earn significantly more than if he had continued playing for Namibia. He will also benefit from a far more professional environment than Namibia currently offer. "There is a lot of talent but perhaps a culture of acceptance of being average," he reflects. "Fitness-wise I'd say half the team are up to scratch and half probably aren't." Weaknesses in the field cost Namibia as they ended the World T20 qualifier with three consecutive defeats to Hong Kong, Netherlands and Oman; had they won any of those games, Namibia would now be plotting their passage to India.

Namibia's response has been decisive. They are in the process of appointing a new coach, and Baard, only 23, has been made captain. Mixing orthodox strokeplay with huge straight hitting, he was Namibia's top run scorer in the World T20 qualifier and now wants his team to follow his lead. "What I would like for Namibia is to change the way we play the game and our approach going forward," he says. "I feel we have become too predictable in the last few years and bigger teams have capitalised on that."

These failings prevented Baard and his team from reaching the World T20. Yet at least this disappointment has crystallised Namibian cricket's inconvenient truth. As an ICC source says, "The white population is so small that until they start getting some others through the system, they aren't going to progress from their current position."

Zealand believes that cricket can grow into one of the top three sports in Namibia. "We have a huge challenge to expand the sport into marginalised communities and afford every Namibian child the opportunity to play this beautiful game." Until Namibia's national team becomes more representative of the country, it risks more despair like what it encountered in Malahide.