Ten months in Nairobi

Mike Hesson couldn't stay as coach of Kenya for long enough to make enough of a difference, but he is confident the side has a bright future

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Duncan Allan on the attack during his international debut, Netherlands v Kenya, Voorburg, September 12, 2011

Duncan Allan bats against Netherlands in September 2011, Hesson's first series in charge  •  International Cricket Council

Mike Hesson started driving around himself three days after he moved to Nairobi. It may not sound like a significant achievement but it was.
Considering he had arrived from Dunedin, a place known as a ten-minute city because that is how long it takes to get from any one place to another, Kenyan traffic was, in Hesson's own words, "a decent challenge". The trip from his apartment to his workplace, a distance of around five kilometres, took almost two hours, mostly because of the slew of roadworks. But by the time Hesson resigned his post, ten months later, though, the drive took less than ten minutes.
Hesson announced this week that he was stepping down as Kenya national coach, and said security concerns were the only reason for his decision. "I want to stress that this has absolutely nothing to do with any issues relating to my role as national coach and is not cricket related in any way," his statement read. "This is purely a decision about the safety of my family and quality of life."
In recent years Kenya, known as one of Africa's most stable democracies, has earned a reputation as unsafe. Two grenade attacks in as many months in Nairobi, one on a bus, the other in a church, resulted in seven deaths. Foreigners have been kidnapped and held for ransom. The United States embassy issued a warning that terror attacks on prominent government buildings and hotels in the capital could be imminent. The United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had strict guidelines for travel, instructing people to stay away from the coastline along the Kenya-Somalia border.
Kenya's military has become increasingly involved in Somalia and mounting fears of more violence caused Hesson to make the difficult decision to leave. Kenya had become his home and in his time there, transport was not the only thing he saw change for the better. Having taken the job at a time when Kenya Cricket needed someone to usher in good fortune, he believed he "had just started something" and says he is sad that the situation made it impossible for him to continue.
Hesson is not the typical Westerner who has had enough of deep, dark Africa. He is well travelled, having lived in Buenos Aires in 2004, when he coached Argentina, and put a lot of thought into his move to Kenya. He chose the country a year after resigning the position as head coach of Otago in New Zealand, where he had been for six seasons.
"It was a good opportunity for the family to experience a different country and a different culture," Hesson told ESPNcricinfo. "We travelled quite a lot as a couple but not with the kids. And professionally, with Kenya cricket not going so well, it was a real opportunity to push them forward." In July last year, Hesson, his wife Kate and their two daughters, aged two and five, packed up their lives in relatively quiet Dunedin and moved to bustling Nairobi.
The family was put up in a furnished apartment in a large, secured complex. Kate started work with a number of charity organizations, while the two girls went to school. "We lived in a good location. We had a gym, pool and playing ground for the kids, so it was really nice," Hesson said. "Our girls went to a local school that they thoroughly enjoyed. They leant many valuable life lessons and quite a lot of Swahili."
Hesson went about trying to understand the ins and outs of Kenyan cricket, a task that would prove more complicated than merely getting to grips with another country's sporting culture. "My initial ideas were to observe and see how they go about things, see how things were done in the past, what worked and what hasn't, and try and put my own stamp on things," he said.
When he arrived, though, eight national players, including the much lauded batsman Alex Obanda and the experienced Maurice Ouma were on strike, demanding better pay and work conditions. A makeshift Kenya side played the UAE in an Intercontinental Cup match and lost by 66 runs. The immediate challenge Hesson faced was getting the core of the squad back.
By the time of his first assignment, against Netherlands in September, the issue was still unresolved. Kenya were forced to name a fairly inexperienced side but came close in the first game, losing by only two wickets. It was only in October, when the players and the board agreed on a solution, that Hesson felt his job had actually started to take shape.
"When we got our full squad back, it was like real coaching again. There was a larger group of players needing guidance tactically and technically, and that was why I was attracted to the job. It took about four months to get the whole squad together but we got there," he said. Results, though, took longer to change. Kenya lost 6-2 in an eight-match Twenty20 series against Namibia in November, having at one stage been 5-0 down.
It was only in February this year that a dramatic improvement could be seen. In Mombasa, Kenya came within ten runs of beating Ireland in an Intercontinental Cup game, a thrilling low-scorer that could have been one of the biggest upsets of the year.
"There's a lot of skill, but what needs to be worked on is the experience. Things like decision-making under pressure is where Kenya have got a lot of work to do"
Hesson was pleasantly surprised, having thought Kenya would fare worse. "We were playing against the top Associate in the world, so the expectations were low," he said. "We started the game so well and in such a low-scoring game to lose by nine runs was a top effort. But we we're still very disappointed we didn't win." Kenya went on to beat Ireland in a World Cricket League one-dayer, becoming the first Associate to beat Ireland in a 50-over match in over a year.
A respectable performance at the World T20 qualifiers followed. Kenya finished fourth in Group B, with four wins from their seven matches, and missed out on the next stage by 0.007 of a run. More heartening were the individual efforts, which highlighted some of the promise Kenya has within their ranks.
"Alex Obanda had an extremely good tournament," Hesson said. Obanda scored 298 runs at a strike rate of 146. "Duncan Allen is only 19 and he is a talented and determined cricketer. Rakep Patel is certainly a player to watch, especially in the shorter versions as he is an explosive strokeplayer. There are also a number of quality spin bowlers to choose from, like Hiren Varaiya, who took 12 wickets against Ireland, and the Ngoche brothers, Shem and James."
What's keeping Kenya's results from reflecting their talent, according to Hesson, is only a matter of time and more matches. "There's a lot of skill, but what needs to be worked on is the experience," he said. "Things like decision-making under pressure is where they have got a lot of work to do."
Having seen the team perform in a range of formats, Hesson had developed ideas on how they could improve. "In 2003, for example, none of the Associates played first-class cricket and now all of them do, within Test-playing nations' programmes," he said. All the sides we play against are under pressure every week. We are in a changing landscape now and we've got to try and get exposed to those playing programmes, whether that be in South Africa or Zimbabwe."
Hesson, his family and the Kenyan players are all disappointed that their time together had to end. While Hesson is going back to New Zealand without any firm arrangements on a job, he believes that the team he leaves behind in Kenya can be certain of a bright future.
Far from being unrealistically optimistic, though, he said it is important that they build on the structures that have been put in place if they hope to see success. "It will take time and this group of players have only been together four months as a whole squad. They have to be allowed time to develop," he said. "What I will say is that the players I am working with now are extremely proud of playing for Kenya and they work extremely hard. Unfortunately, we've just started."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent