Cricket World Cup: Unlocking the doors of promise

The Minnows: Kenya; The world stage awaits the pride of East Africa.
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The Independent Online
TUESDAY, 18 MAY, 1999. Despite all the warnings, England have just stepped on the Canterbury banana skin and lost to Kenya by six runs. As the dejected players make their way back to the pavilion, one man is anxious to catch up with them. Once inside, he rushes to the dressing- room and opens the door. "Bad luck," he says, gleefully, before rejoining the victors. A dream? Peter Lever is far too pragmatic for that.

Lever, the former Lancashire and Test fast bowler who was England's bowling coach for the 1996 tour to South Africa under Ray Illingworth's regime and is now filling the same role for Kenya, sincerely believes it could happen. As a man who never suffered fools - or Devon Malcolm - gladly, he would not have accepted the job on a whim. "I was reluctant at first. And when I got to Nairobi, I thought 'What the hell am I doing here?' But then I met these guys, we did a few nets and squares, and I realised this was a super set of lads."

It is those lads who fulfil Lever the coach now that he no longer plays. "I get a great buzz from teaching them and seeing results. Most are only a tweak away from being top class. Kenya have all the makings of a good side." Praise indeed for a team likened, as recently as 1996, to little more than a decent minor county XI.

One man who has witnessed the Africans' progression at first-hand for nearly 20 years is their captain, Asif Karim. "After a long while in the wilderness, the 1990 ICC Trophy [the secondary World Cup for the minor cricketing nations ranked 10 to 20 in the world] in Holland was the turning point for us," says Karim, who made his debut in 1980 at the age of 17. "We lost to the hosts in the semi-finals but we had finally established ourselves on the world stage."

Since then, in fact, Kenya have organised the tournament in 1994, reaching the final and thus securing their maiden berth at the 1996 World Cup finals. It was during one of their group matches that they achieved their greatest victory - a 73-run defeat of the West Indies. "It was a fantastic day," he adds, "but we don't intend to live on that one result. We now have the players and infrastructure to advance confidently."

Securing their first ever sponsorship deal - an pounds 80,000 association with Kenyan Tusker Breweries - is a clear indication of their intent. For the first time, many of Kenya's players are full-time professionals. There is still much to do, but this is a positive start.

However, while this new dawn has allowed the emerging players to concentrate solely on their game, it has not given them the regular first-class cricket they desperately need. Harilal Shah, their tour manager who captained East Africa in the 1975 World Cup, is only too aware of that drawback. "The problem is that our players don't get enough big matches. There should be a combined associate members' team playing in some of the four- nation tournaments," Shah says. "Let's face it, the likes of Steve Tikolo could play for several of the Test countries, but he'll only take part in a maximum of two World Cups. The world is missing out on seeing some great cricketers because they are isolated."

Hence the need to perform. "The players are conscious of the fact that this is a world stage. They will want to do well," he says. "If they get recognition, they get jobs. It's that simple."

Lever, who joined the party on their arrival in England, shares Shah's views. "Out of the 15 boys here, I have worked with 11 before, and got to know the others very quickly. I can tell you they are a very talented bunch of young players. If they were competing in the right environment they would be stars. No question of it."

Top of the list are Tikolo (who scored 719 runs in the 1998 ICC Trophy) and Maurice Odumbe (the scorer of 1,173 runs in the same tournament). They are good run-builders and enjoy an excellent relationship when at the crease. They are also decent bowlers - not least Odumbe who took 3 for 14 in that World Cup match against the West Indies - and should be ably assisted by the promising fast bowler, Martin Suji. Ravindu Shah, one of the openers alongside Kennedy Otiendo, had an encouraging tour of India late last year when he scored 70 in one of his first Tests. And with Karim orchestrating events on the field, Kenya look better equipped than ever.

Such promise was not the spur for Lever alone. It was also the reason why Alvin Kallicharran - a member of the back-to-back West Indies World Cup winning teams of 1975 and 1979 - agreed to take over as team coach last August. "Having been involved with cricket all my life, I thought this was a wonderful opportunity, something I had not yet done," Kallicharran says. "It is a challenge, especially as Kenya is such a young cricketing nation. But it is full of potential, so I'm very upbeat and positive. Most people will see us as underdogs, but I say we are one of 12 teams in the World Cup, and we have a chance."

The team reminds the veteran of 66 Tests of his own humble beginnings in the West Indies. "It's the same sort of poor facilities and raw material. Kenya is blessed with natural talent, and my role is to make the players feel important and confident."

For the management duo the aims are clear. "As a team, we want to compete and do well," the coach says. "As for the players, this is their chance to make a mark on the game in the Mecca of cricket." Like Kallicharran, Lever will not discuss specific targets, though. "What is it they say on Match of the Day? 'Take each game as it comes'. Well, that's our plan. But if we get a win under our belt," he says, dropping his guard momentarily, "who knows? We are more than capable of doing something special."

At Canterbury on 18 May, perhaps? "I've heard and read so much about it already," enthuses the normally impassive Kallicharran. "It's going to be a big occasion. These boys are exciting, so it would be great to see them succeed."

If they do, you suspect there may be more than just the one man popping his head around that dressing-room door to gloat.

THE TEAM: THE SIBLINGS XI

Sunil Wettimuny (SL) Played in 1983 World Cup

Sidath Wettimuny (SL) 1975, 1979

Trevor Chappell (Aus) 1983

Greg Chappell (Aus) 1975

Ian Chappell (Aus) 1975

Martin Crowe (NZ) 1983, 1987, 1992

Jeff Crowe (NZ) 1983, 1987

Richard Hadlee (NZ) 1975, 1979, 1983

Dayle Hadlee (NZ) 1975

Razim Raja (Pak) 1987, 1992, 1996

Wasim Raja (Pak) 1975, 1979, 1983

WELL I DECLARE

THE TWO most remarkable attacking innings came in adversity. India were 9 for 4 when Kapil Dev went in against Zimbabwe in 1983 and then 17 for 5. Kapil scored 175 not out (six sixes). Sri Lanka's Ravi Ratnayeke was on a hat-trick and West Indies 45 for 2 when Viv Richards took guard in 1987. He made 181 (125 balls), also with six sixes; he hit 20 sixes out of 1,013 tournament runs.

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