Inspired by football, Nigeria U-19s hope to restore cricket in the country

Having also received a pep talk from SA's Bavuma, they are eager to shake off a poor start and make a splash in the World Cup

The Nigeria players celebrate after booking their berth at the 2020 U-19 World Cup

The Nigeria players celebrate after booking their berth at the 2020 U-19 World Cup  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

On March 24 2019, it seemed like Nigeria's hard work at the Africa Division One tournament would amount to nothing. They had beaten the three teams ranked higher than them already - Namibia, Uganda and Kenya - and needed to only defeat Sierra Leone to qualify for the 2020 Under-19 World Cup. But Sierra Leone, having scored 138, reduced Nigeria to 91 for 7. Nigeria captain Sylvester Okpe couldn't watch the game any longer.
"I was in the dressing room, praying for a miracle," Okpe, who idolises MS Dhoni and Daren Sammy for their calmness, said. "I was chewing on the bottle cap so hard that nothing was left of it."
However, their No. 8 Peter Aho came to the rescue. Before the match, Aho's highest score in the tournament was 3. But he struck 21 off 32 balls on the day, including the winning runs, to seal Nigeria's two-wicket win, and their spot in the 2020 Under-19 World Cup. It remains Aho's highest score for Nigeria.
The scenes, as expected, were one that the team had never experienced before. As the players ran onto the ground to celebrate, bottles were thrown in the air, coaches performed silent prayers near the boundary, and some cried their hearts out.
"When the game was going against us, the supporters at the pavilion were supporting Sierra Leone, because [the hosts] Namibia were second, and if we lost, then they would qualify on net run-rate," Okpe told ESPNcricinfo. "Everyone was against us. If you watch the clip you won't see me running onto the pitch, because I was crying - tears of joy - near the boundary.
"It was a very emotional moment for us. To be the first team qualifying for a major ICC event. To make it for the first time in over 115 years of cricket in Nigeria, we were really excited and we couldn't help but express it."
Cricket was introduced to Nigeria by the British Empire in the 18th century. The first time a Nigerian team played another country was in 1904, when they faced off against the "Gold Coast" (now Ghana). A power struggle between the expatriates and the locals then followed as both groups formed their own cricket associations in 1932 and 1933 respectively, and it took as long as 1957 for both associations to integrate and become one.
Although cricket in West Africa was never popular, Nigeria led the charge in the 1960s to change that culture. They formed the West Africa Cricket Conference - together with Gambia, Ghana and Sierra Leone - to expand the sport in the region by 1976 and started the WACC quadrangular tournament, a bi-yearly event between the four teams. Such was Nigeria's dominance that they won the first 10 editions between 1976 and 1997. But as football, boxing and athletics began to grow through the country, cricket took the backseat again.
With Nigeria's qualification into the U-19 World Cup, there's hope that the interest around cricket would rise again. "Most support was coming from individuals and ICC previously," board president Yahaya Adam Ukwenya told ESPNcricinfo. "Now, with the qualification, we have the government putting their hand up. More private sectors are coming through too.
"The ICC has worked closely with us in setting up of tournaments. One of the reasons we've started doing well is the coaching clinics the ICC have conducted across the country, improve the standard of our practice sessions."
The side had also received a pep talk from the South Africa cricket team ahead of the tournament.
"When we came to the World Cup, we were lucky to be in the same hotel as the Proteas too, who were there to play the first Test against England in Pretoria.
"Temba Bavuma came to speak with us. We saw Faf du Plessis and Vernon Philander too - it's really helped us, very encouraging. Bavuma spoke about believing in ourselves and being true to our processes. Told us to believe in our talent."
Another source of inspiration for them has been the Nigerian football team. Football is, by far, the most popular sport in the country, and the team believes they can learn a fair bit from the Super Eagles.
"In soccer, the game never ends till the final whistle," Okpe said. "Most of the Nigerian teams that succeeded, they don't give up easily. In schools, we've played football like that also. The bond that comes with team spirit, it's really helped us.
Before the 2020 U-19 World Cup got underway, Okpe had said: "we are like the Leicester City of cricket… we can shock the world", referencing how the English club defied odds of 5000/1 to win the 2015-16 Premier League season. While Nigeria haven't had the best tournament so far, losing by ten wickets to Australia and by 246 runs against West Indies, they'll hope to do well to remember how Leicester City eventually won that title.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo