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Over-performing underdog

For Kenya, Tikolo has been the leader, the strategist, the pivotal moment, the ego and the elation

Jamie Alter

His obvious talent only heightens Steve Tikolo's enigmatic status © Getty Images
Mervin Dillon pitched the ball up and was greeted by a glorious straight drive back past his outstretched hand. Before the bowler could regain his balance, the ball had made its acquaintance with the long-off fence. No, the batsman was not Sachin Tendulkar, but one Steve Tikolo, and he was on 86 from 85 balls before that ferocious shot. The bowler would have his revenge five deliveries later, a controlled yorker effectively signalling the end of the match, but the batsman had done enough to push his side's claim for Test match status with a brilliant counterattack against the West Indies.
Tikolo has always remained something of - pardon the lavishness - an enigma. Yes, an enigma. This is because he has been conferred an epithet - `the world's best non-Test-playing batsman' - which, though seemingly flattering, might as well elicit a rueful smile from the man himself.
He and his team are, ostensibly, victims of a system that is clearly fallible. He can rack up hundreds and double hundreds against Bermuda, Ireland and the Rock of Gibraltar for all the ICC cares. The fact remains that the ICC is not willing to risk letting another minnow country jump into the deep end. Never mind that Kenya, despite playing half the one-dayers Bangladesh has, have won two more, been to the semifinals of a World Cup, and have crossed 300 in a one-day game. Against Bangladesh itself Tikolo has performed as if to prove a point. In the 1997 ICC Trophy, he scored 147 against them and in seven subsequent encounters he ensured that his side won six of them.
So let's get one thing straight - Steve Tikolo will never play Test cricket. Bangladesh and the ICC have ensured that. Being his country's highest run scorer and boasting a first-class batting average of 52.74, with 751 runs at 107.28 from his past eight innings, won't change that.
And despite all that, Tikolo continues to be as motivated as ever. He bats, bowls and fields better than most of his team-mates. When he comes to the crease, the opposition knows that the sooner they send him back, the easier it is to dismiss the side. The best part about Tikolo's batting is that he knows he has nothing to lose, hence the thrust of the foot down the track and a free swing of the arms, Caribbean-style. It's almost like Tikolo is there to spoil the fun for the opposition, swagger and all.
There is always something fulfilling about rooting for the underdog, and Tikolo provides that. Sportswriters and critics have a belief - a norm even - that an innings qualifies itself as great only when played against a quality opposition. Tikolo certainly has fulfilled that demand. Playing for a team that has been at the bottom of the rankings, Tikolo has at least one fifty against all Test-playing nations barring Pakistan.
Take his contribution at Kenya's first international outing, the 1996 World Cup: a gutsy 65 against India; then his 29 in Kenya's sensational victory, in only its second game, against the West Indies; and finally that sparkling 96 off 95 balls against Sri Lanka, in which he faced Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan with ease.
Tikolo's contribution to Kenyan cricket cannot be discussed without special mention of Maurice Odumbe, the former Kenyan captain and middle-order batsman. Together, they were the Bonnie and Clyde of cricket. Like many other famous dynamic duos in sport - Jordan and Pippen and Greenidge and Haynes to name just two - they have been able to capture the imagination of the general public. Against Bangladesh in Chennai or Australia in Nairobi, the two had an aura about them, a nonchalant disregard for the bowler steaming in. They always promised more than they delivered, but this can be said of so many flawed geniuses in the game of cricket. Somewhere along the way Odumbe fell prey to cricket's ugly sister - match fixing - and was banned from the game, and so it fell on Tikolo's shoulders to lead the side out of the gloom.
And lead them he has. For Kenya, Tikolo has been the leader, the strategist (he skillfully exploited limited bowling resources to considerable success in the 2003 World Cup), the pivotal moment, the ego and the elation. To see his team shunned by the ICC must hurt the man - Tikolo finds himself a powerful tool in a powerless situation. All he can do is bat, rake up runs and see his team ignored for the better part of the cricketing season.
That's life for Steve Tikolo, a man who rarely fails to entertain.

Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo