'The most challenging thing for Associates is lack of games'

Kenya veteran Steve Tikolo talks about the challenges of his latest job as Uganda coach

On a typically warm and humid afternoon in Kampala, most players participating in WCL Division Three have opted to spend the tournament's first off day taking a rest. Uganda's squad is no different, and the majority are in the pool.
But two players are keen to sharpen their skills and head to Lugogo Oval in the centre of town. Steve Tikolo, a familiar face in the world of Associate cricket, keeps vigil during the session, patiently waiting behind the stumps with a baseball glove as one of the players, Mohammed Irfan, sends down ten overs of offspin, trying to land each delivery between a set of cones.
Work ethic was at the heart of Tikolo's method as a player, and now he is instilling the virtue in others in his second career as a coach.
"I came to Uganda, got the guys, sat them down and said, 'This is how we're going to work. I need you guys to put in extra work, I need you guys to be disciplined, I need you guys to be focused on your game,'" Tikolo says. "There are times we've had sessions as early as 7am. Guys come and put in extra in one-on-one sessions from seven to nine, and then from 9:30 you start the team session."
"A number of times I've come to play club cricket in Uganda, so there's that rapport between me and the guys here, and looking at them and how talented they are, I felt the urge to come and assist them growing their game"
For Tikolo, hunger to do well is a part of Associate cricket in general: players and teams constantly scrapping, sweating, grinding, hustling for a chance to prove themselves in the few opportunities they get. He embodied those traits over the course of a legendary 21-year career with Kenya from 1993 through 2014, in which he forged a reputation as arguably the best ever Associate batsman. Now he's trying to share his philosophies with Uganda, another country in east Africa with a rich cricketing history that was overshadowed in the sport by Tikolo's neighbouring homeland.
Tikolo, who came on as Uganda's coach in 2016, is not exactly a stranger to that country, though. "A number of times in my playing career, I've come to play club cricket in Uganda, so there's that rapport between me and the guys here, and looking at them and how talented they are, I felt the need or the urge to come and assist them growing their game," Tikolo says. "So it's sort of a friendly relationship between me and the guys in Uganda, and when they asked me to come and coach them as their head coach, I didn't hesitate to take up the job."
It's actually the second time Tikolo has been part of the Uganda set-up. He signed off from international cricket after the 2011 World Cup and was Uganda's batting coach in 2013 at World Cricket League Division Three in Bermuda, when they topped the group stage to secure a spot at the 2014 World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand.
However, Tikolo had to sever ties ahead of that second tournament, when he received an SOS from the Kenya board. Kenya had finished the 2011-13 WCL Championship cycle with a 5-9 record, ending with two losses in Sharjah to Afghanistan, who clinched qualification for their maiden World Cup. Desperate to maintain their tenuous grip on ODI and T20I status, the Kenya board called Tikolo out of retirement to play in the 2013 World T20 Qualifier and the 50-over World Cup Qualifier the following January in New Zealand.
"When they did ask me to come back, yes, Kenya cricket was going through a crisis at that time," Tikolo says. "I heeded the call to come and play for my country and assist my country to at least be stable at international level.
"There was a crisis in terms of young players coming through who were not ready for that international level, and they needed people to mentor them in that team."
In that 2014 World Cup Qualifier, Tikolo wound up scoring an unbeaten 55 in a win over the Uganda side he had been coaching less than a year earlier. The result kept Kenya afloat and simultaneously contributed to Uganda falling back to Division Three held later in 2014.
His tenure as Kenya coach ended abruptly. According to Tikolo, his emphasis on discipline and work ethic did not sit well with some players
A bigger match was still to come, though, against Netherlands, where Kenya pulled off a stunning chase of 266 in under 36 overs, spearheaded by Irfan Karim's century and finished off with Tikolo at the crease for the winning run. It sent the Dutch crashing out of the group stage and marked the end of their ODI status.
"It felt good to see a youngster coming through," Tikolo recalls of the tournament. "There were issues of having youngsters in the team who might not deliver, and seeing Irfan play the innings he played in that particular game was very satisfying.
"Just to know that I was part of that squad in the role of a mentor - I kept on talking to him on that tour about how to go about things. Also to see a number of youngsters coming through like Rakep [Patel], and also Nelson Mandela [Odhiambo], it took a lot of burden off my shoulders knowing that at least we have a team that can grow at international level."
Though Kenya's ODI status also eventually ended in that tournament, after they were bested by Scotland, they managed to hold on to a spot at the 2015 WCL Division Two in Namibia. Tikolo went from being an informal mentor as team-mate on that New Zealand tour to an official full-time role as Kenya coach. A top-four finish at Division Two in January 2015 meant they were able to keep a semi-regular slate of one-day matches via the WCL Championship.
"When I was coaching Kenya, I felt the team was progressing," Tikolo says. "The reason being that we went to Africa Cup in South Africa, six-a-side tournament. We did well, we played in the finals against South Africa. Then there was a 50-over tournament which involved Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania. Zimbabwe sent their A team, South Africa sent an U-23 side, and Kenya emerged the winners of that tournament. We also went to Namibia [for 2015 WCL Division Two] where we finished third. For me, those results [spoke] for a team that was starting to grow again or pointing in the right direction."
His tenure ended abruptly, though, in 2016. According to Tikolo, his emphasis on discipline and work ethic did not sit well with some players. A clash ensued and the players took their grievances to the board. Their voices won over that of the coach, the country's greatest ever player, who had helped take Kenya to five straight World Cup appearances from 1996 to 2011, including a famous semi-final run in 2003.
"When I took over, there was not a lot of discipline in the team," Tikolo says. "I was laid off, or rather sacked, because of wanting to do the right things and take the team in the right direction.
"Current players do not want to work hard. If that continues, I'm sorry to say Kenya cricket will not come back to where we were, say, ten years ago"
"It becomes very frustrating when you see talented guys who can achieve a lot, and because of, if I may use the word, silly, silly things that they are doing in terms of trying to go in the right direction - they are not doing the right things - it becomes very frustrating. Kenya has a lot of talented players, but until we look at ourselves as players in terms of discipline and the things that we need to do right to go forward and start doing them, we'll keep on struggling.
"The former team went to two or three World Cups. Yes, we had talented players but we still had to work hard in terms of training, keeping fit, time management, knowing when to have fun - things like late nights - and when to have serious business. We worked hard to achieve what we achieved in 2003. It didn't just come as a fluke, but current players do not want to work hard. If that continues, I'm sorry to say Kenya cricket will not come back to where we were, say, ten years ago."
With Tikolo a free agent, the Uganda Cricket Association pounced on the opportunity to bring him back in 2016 for the build-up to WCL Division Three. After months of training, Uganda arranged a five-match series against a near full-strength Kenya side in Kampala and emerged 4-0 winners, with the fifth game washed out.
"When I came to Uganda, my coaching styles that I had when I was with Kenya had not changed," Tikolo said. "The performances that we saw against Kenya, I was not surprised because the Ugandan boys had put in a lot of hard work leading into that series, and it showed in that series that the team had really changed. Kenya perhaps came thinking it is the same Uganda they have been playing and beating over and over again, forgetting that things were now different."
Coming off such a rousing success against a WCL Championship side ranked well above them, Uganda were riding a wave of momentum heading into Division Three on home soil. However, they suffered a harsh loss to Canada on the opening day of the tournament, in which Uganda's renowned fielding discipline let them down badly.
With Canada struggling at 104 for 5 in the 29th over of a game reduced to 42 overs a side, Uganda dropped the dangerous Rizwan Cheema on 3. He went on to make 91 off 44 balls. The hosts had an unprecedented turnout at Lugogo for the match, with some estimates claiming anywhere from 2000 to 5000 fans were present. Local observers believe the Uganda players, not used to having such a big crowd supporting them, let nerves overwhelm them on the day. Tikolo thinks such results can happen due to a lack of regular opportunities in between tournaments.
"The most challenging thing for Associate countries, I would say, is lack of enough games," he says. "Associate teams don't play enough games to become better teams, to probably be able to compete with the bigger teams like the Test countries.
"There is no shortcut in cricket or any other sport. If you keep on training every day and you don't get tested in terms of playing matches or game time, it's really difficult for you to grow. You only grow when you get tested, you play more games, you learn and become better players.
"For me it's just them being given the opportunity to play. If we get those matches, I trust and believe those boys can get there"
"The last time Uganda played in a competitive tournament was probably two years ago [in January 2015 at WCL Division Two]. So in two years they've not had any game time apart from internal games we organise amongst ourselves. There's not much challenge, as opposed to when you're playing a different opposition, guys you don't know. You have to learn them, you've got to work out how to play against them, bowl against them, bat against them. So the biggest challenge would be lack of enough games for Associate countries."
While Tikolo is not jealous, he is one of many who looks on wistfully at the opportunities that have sprung up over the past few years for certain Associate countries against Test nations, in particular Ireland's 2017 summer fixture list which has already seen them play six ODIs against England, New Zealand and Bangladesh. After reaching the 2003 World Cup semi-final, Tikolo only played four ODIs against top-eight Full Members in the four years before the start of the 2007 World Cup, and half of those games came in the 2004 Champions Trophy. He feels Kenya might have been able to overcome administrative hurdles off the field to continue growing if they had been given more chances against Full Members on it.
"If we had those opportunities going forward after 2003, I think Kenya would still be an ODI team," Tikolo says. "I remember during the 2003 Word Cup after the semi-finals, there were talks that Kenya might be the next Test playing country moving forward, but that didn't materialise because of how we as Kenya, especially the management, handled things. But if we had that chance to play more games, I believe our game would have grown."
When Tikolo took over the Uganda job in 2016, he set a target of wanting to be the first coach to take them to a World Cup. That lofty goal became that much tougher to achieve when the team followed up the loss to Canada with one to Oman and then a devastating defeat to USA that not only kept them from progressing to Division Two but resulted in relegation back to Division Four. Getting to the 2019 World Cup is out of the question and the next opportunity for the big stage might not be until the 2020 World T20.
Tikolo's contract as Uganda coach is up for review in the wake of the team's relegation. However, he believes Uganda have the players, mainly in the form a strong spin bowling attack led by captain Davis Karashani, to keep the World Cup dream alive - a dream he is hoping to still get the chance to deliver.
"I believe Uganda has the talent to make that happen," Tikolo said. "For me it's just them being given the opportunity to play. If we get those matches, I trust and believe those boys can get there."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna