A long way from stick and corn cob

Kenya's greatest day is well deserved, says Derek Pringle, who grew up there
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A little less than a year ago, the cricket world looked and blinked, unsure of what it had seen, as the West Indies lost their first Test series for many years, to a deserving Australia. Yesterday, cricketers everwhere would have gawped in utter disbelief, as Kenya thrashed the West Indies by 73 runs. It was as decisive a victory as anything achieved by their brilliant and better known distance runners.

Australia's captain, Mark Taylor, had already warned that Kenya could be the ones to cause an upset but even he could not have had the West Indies in mind. In fact, Kenya outplayed them, grittily using up their overs when all looked lost at 81 for 6, showing a tenacity the West Indies now lack.

It was not pretty, but then you never go out to fight wearing your best trousers. When it comes to passing the Norman Tebbitt Test, I fail every time where Kenya are involved and my only disappointment is that I was not there to witness what has been undoubtedly their greatest moment in cricket so far.

That wish that has nothing to do with revelling in West Indian woe, and everything to do with celebrating Kenyan joy. It is a country I hold very dear, being the place of my birth and upbringing - a place where, among other things, my father captained the national team, and I learned to play cricket.

The game has long been popular, having long been played by colonial expats and Asians, almost exclusively on jute or coir matting, stretched over a firm murram (compacted gravel) base - though most club pitches in the capital, Nairobi, are now turf.

Indeed, the annual Europeans v Asians matches were the equivalent of "Test" matches, and regularly attracted large crowds. There were touring sides too. Sides like the Commonwealth Cavaliers, captained by the likes of Ted Dexter, who in 1963 presented my father Donald with his England touring cap after he skittled Lord Ted with an inswinger first ball.

Black Africans did not really play, even at school, although the few that did usually came from Uganda. But then that is the truly amazing aspect of Kenya's victory. Unlike Zimbabwe - who have achieved full ICC status - Kenya have a team who not only have a black majority, but whose best players are indigenous Africans, most of them from the Luo tribe around the shores of Lake Victoria, where cricket has not been played since Kenya's independence over 30 years ago. Today, only Nairobi and Mombasa have cricket leagues.

But where have these brilliant black players like Maurice Odumbe, Steve Tikolo, Martin Suji and Kennedy Otieno, come from? Certainly there were none playing when I left Kenya to live in England back in 1977, and the story of their emergence is almost as fantastic as yesterday's victory.

According to Harilal Shah, who captained East Africa in the 1975 World Cup, and who is now the team manager, the story began during net sessions at Nairobi's Sir Ali Sports Club, where the young Odumbes and Tikolos would watch the club players practice, setting up their own impromptu game afterwards, using a stick for a bat and a dried corn cob as a ball.

Their obvious enthusiasm and skill eventually saw them invited to join in, snowballing their development until word eventually got around and clubs began to invite them to turn out for matches.

Word also got round the extended family - to which nearly all the current African players belong - that this static game with its expensive equipment was really quite fun.

There are of course other strands that led to yesterday's stunning victory. For a start, Kenya have beaten both England A and India A in the last five years. They have played here as if expecting to win, not in the slightest bit overawed by their opponents.

Credit must also go to the efforts of Jasmer and Hanumant Singh, tireless administrator and coach repectively, the latter arranging for England's bowling coach Peter Lever to stop off on his way back from coaching Devon Malcolm and Co in South Africa last November. It is easy to see who were more receptive to his ideas.

People have always gone to Kenya to see its wildlife and its runners. Soon they will be going to watch its cricket team play Test matches.

10 great sporting upsets

1 England's footballers losing 1-0 to the United States in the 1950 World Cup

2 Boris Becker becoming the first unseeded player to win Wimbledon at the age of 17 in 1985

3 James "Buster" Douglas beating Mike Tyson to win the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1990

4 Golfer John Daly emerging as a reserve to win the US PGA in 1991

5 Australia ending the United States' 113-year hold on sailing's America's Cup in 1983

6 Colchester beating Leeds 3-2 in the FA Cup in 1971

7 Faroe Islands beating Austria 1-0 in a European Championship football qualifier in 1990

8 Western Samoa beating Wales in the 1991 Rugby World Cup

9 Norton's Coin beating Desert Orchid to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 100-1 in 1990

10 Billy Mills, an unknown half-breed Sioux Indian, beating Ron Clarke, the world record holder, to win the Olympic 10,000m gold medal in Tokyo in 1964