Cricket: Kenya's field days for the obsessive: The ICC Trophy supplies World Cup bait for small fry. Mark Newham reports from Nairobi

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The Independent Online
STRANGE as it may seem, the most keenly contested match of this year's International Cricket Council Trophy will not be the final but the battle for third and fourth place. With the leading three sides each guaranteed a place in the 1995 World Cup on the Indian subcontinent, there is considerably more at stake than usual for the losing semi-finalists.

The final itself is scheduled for 6 March at the recently refurbished Ruaraka Club, which is on Nairobi's front line with the savannah at an altitude of 5,000ft. It will be the climax of three weeks of 50-over games in Kenya for non-Test playing nations. Billed by some critics as cricket's economy class, the competition has attracted 20 participants and substantial sponsorship from the ABM-AMRO Bank.

From today, passionate followers of the game will have their staying powers tested to the full as the field is whittled down via 40 round-robin pool matches (five countries in each of four pools), followed by 12 second-round round-robin games, two semi-finals, that third-place play-off and the final. For the true obsessive there are an additional 13 matches for the Plate (played out between the third and fourth teams in each pool) and six more for the fifth-placed countries, making a grand total of 75 matches.

To watch the competition progress, members of such establishments as the Nairobi Club, historically as immovable as the sagging armchairs they occupy, will have to uproot themselves and emerge from the cloisters of their oak-panelled, leather-bound sanctuary. No television company has been enticed to cover the tournament, thanks largely to the surplus of top-class international cricket underway elsewhere. 'But that shouldn't be taken as an indication of the competition's importance,' the organising secretary, Robbie Armstrong, insisted.

If the warm-up games are anything to go by, any number of upsets can be expected. Bangladesh, the second seeds, were trounced in their first practice outing by a young Kenya side containing just four members of their third-seeded national squad. Then, in two meetings with the favourites on successive days last weekend, the young Kenyans first succumbed to a Dutch pace attack - spearheaded by Glamorgan's Roland Lefebvre - then rebounded in the second encounter to humble the Netherlands by four wickets with two overs to spare.

A day later, while the Kenyans were busy bowling out fourth-seeded Bermuda 40 runs short of their target, a largely unknown Ireland side, coached by the former Zimbabwe captain, David Houghton, denied the much-fancied Canadians in the last over.

The warm-up games have given the teams an opportunity to adapt to the altitude: without exception, all the visitors have experienced breathing problems. They have also been able to gauge the strength of the opposition, and had a chance to appraise local conditions. That could prove critical given that all the pitches to be used are grass - most of those competing play on matting in their own countries.

The hosts have been drawn in a tough group containing Canada and Namibia. The Canadians lost the 1979 final to Sri Lanka, while Namibia - who are making their first appearance in the competition - are one of the dark horses. Some Kenyan players are worried that Namibia's main strength lies in their close cricketing links with South Africa.

Even so, the Kenyans are supremely confident of at least taking one of the first three places. Under the Tikolo brothers - captain Tom and vice-captain Steve - and coached by the former Indian Test player, Hanumant Singh, they will certainly be hard to beat.

Kenyan cricket has benefited hugely in the past from the influx of workers from the Indian subcontinent. Immigration from Test-playing nations has also helped the United Arab Emirates and the United States, who are in the same group as Bangladesh.

The Americans in particular could provide a few shocks, having toured successfully in India prior to this competition with a side containing Everton Mattis and Faoud Bacchus - who have played for the West Indies against England in Tests - alongside three former first-class West Indian fast bowlers.

Coached by the former Indian Test player, Mohinder Armanath, Bangladesh were the first side to arrive and would dearly love to qualify for a World Cup being held so close to home. Two things could prevent this. The altitude is one, Ramadan the other, falling as it does on the same dates as the ICC competition. The Bangladeshis, for instance, are predominantly Muslim.

With this in mind, the pundits in Nairobi have put a major question mark against the second seeds. The smart money is on the Netherlands, Kenya and one other, possibly the US or UAE, filling the top three places.