Kenya signals return to the top in the Caribbean

Kenya, World Cup semi-finalists in 2003, believe they are ready to return to the world stage after their success in the World Cricket League tournament they hosted in January and February.

Cricket standards in the country had fallen to the lowest level following three years of internal strife, forcing players to strike against the former cricket administration over dubious contracts and bonuses. The fallout resulted in Kenya being stripped of its official one-day status that granted the country automatic qualification to the World Cup.

However, recent victory in the World Cricket League tournament featuring second-tier teams could provide the springboard to bounce back. Kenya's coach Roger Harper, a member of the all-conquering West Indies team in the 70s and 80s, summarised his team's achievements in claiming the associate members title.

"Kenya is supposed to be the top associate country as far as cricket is concerned. But it doesn't mean anything unless you show it on the field and we have demonstrated that," said Harper after his team's convincing eight-wicket win over fellow World Cup qualifiers Scotland. "I think it means a lot for the team, for Kenya as a whole."

This is a relatively younger team compared to the one that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2003 with only two of the players being over 30 years of age. The Kenyan team will be without three great performers who formed the backbone of the side since the country qualified for their first World Cup in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1996.

They include former captain Maurice Odumbe, who was suspended from all cricket activities for five years in 2004, for his dalliance with Indian bookmakers and opener Kennedy Otieno. Medium fast bowler Martin Suji is also not in the team after failing to recover from a knee operation. Their places have been taken by a group of promising young players.

Twenty-year-old Tanmay Mishra is not only proving to be a resourceful batsman but also one of the team's best fielders. Having made his cricket debut as a member of the national under-15 team in 2001, the India-born Mishra has been heavily involved in the recent revival of the Kenyan cricket, culminating in the World Cricket League win.

His one-handed catch of Bangladeshi middle-order batsman Ferhad Reza during the one-day international series in Nairobi and a similar dismissal of the Scottish opener David Watts during the World Cricket League final, illustrated his fielding prowess.

Two other youngsters, 22-year-old Hiren Varaiya, a slow left-arm bowler, and seamer Nehemiah Odhaimbo have proved themselves capable to taking wickets. Odhiambo, a younger brother to medium pacer Lameck Onyando, broke through into the bowling ranks when he took five Canadian wickets in the two nations ICC Intercontinental Cup clash in Toronto last August.

Tikolo, once known as the best batsman outside Test cricket has seen his batting form take a dip. But luckily for him his off-spin might come in very handy in the West Indies where the conditions are expected to favour spinners.

The Kenyans got a test of those conditions when they toured the West Indies in February 2004 to play in the Carib Beer series where they played local club sides and several national teams in the Caribbean. But Harper said Kenya will have to play extra harder to improve on their performance in the 2003 World Cup. "Lack of international fixtures also affected the national team players who were not able to gain the exposure," he added.

Participation in the World Cup has an added incentive for Kenya and the other five associate members as they will earn a special grant of 500,000 dollars.