Letter From Kenya: Maize cobs nurture talent

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The Independent Online
Ask around any office in Nairobi for a cricket fan and the reaction lies somewhere between a blank and a grimace. Cricket is not a Kenyan sport, say many, and some go further: it is not really an African sport - yet.

Nairobi accountant Paul Riungu, who grew up in Meru town, 150 miles north of Nairobi, says: "We never heard of a thing called cricket. We were soccer crazy." Apart from a few select schools in and around Nairobi, cricket was not played or talked about and was not shown on national television until the World Cup, 1996.

But somebody was clearly playing cricket - and rather well - during those dark years because in 1996, participating in its first international championships, the Kenyan team produced the biggest upset in World Cup history as shock winners over twice former champions West Indies. There are serious cricket fans lurking around Nairobi - you just have to know where to look.

Fatima Ali Mohamed, 26, is a true and dedicated fan. She spends her week days working in an advertising company and her weekends watching cricket at the clubs. How did she get into cricket? "Being Asian," she says in an "of course" sort of voice. Her father and her friends were all fanatical attenders and players in the inter-league matches for the network of clubs in Nariobi's Asian areas, and she got hooked.

Cricket in Kenya arrived by boat almost exactly a century ago, when a visiting British naval vessel docked in the Indian Ocean coastal town Mombasa and the ship's British crew challenged locals to a quick match. The inaugural match was won by the crew, and stayed a "white game", dominated by settlers, for the next two decades. Its first real challenge was when an Asian Sports Association was founded in 1921, sparking off an annual Europeans verses Asian match which survived until 1966. A tiny minority with enormous resources at its disposal, the Asian community - both indigenous and expatriate - took up cricket in Kenya seriously. With the cricket administration, grounds, clubs and inter-league matches remaining almost exclusively Asian, it is still considered by the average Kenyan a "foreign" game, although Fatima points out: "Labelling it an Asian rather than a Kenyan sport is to do with not accepting Asians in Kenya."

But now, with more than half the players on its present team being Africans, Kenya has to admit to a creeping revolution. Elias Makori, sports writer for Kenya's best selling newspaper, Daily Nation, says cricket has become more popular in the last few years and, while the equipment is prohibitively expensive for most Kenyan children - unlike a football - where there is a will there is a way.

"ou'll see kids hitting maize cobs with wooden sticks," he exp-lains. Successful African players - like Steve Tikolo, whose father was the first black captain - all come from the environment around the Nairobi Asian grounds and clubs, points out Mr Makori.

It was a natural evolution, agrees Fatima, who describes how local children started hanging around the Asian clubs and picking up the skills. "There are no big restrictions on these clubs, unlike the British clubs". Asian money started to back and buy African talent. In the early 1990s black cricketers formed a pressure group, the Pioneer Indigenous Cricketers, to push for more say, and ensure that team selection was based on merit.

So, although cricket is in many ways a perfect history of racial and economic stratification in Kenya, which is still an enormous, if unacknowledged problem in the country, it is also an example of the inevitable price of talent. However closed the Asian community is, its wealth has not been shy - professional cricketers are paid far better than government-sponsored footballers, earning about pounds 500 a month, and Asian businesses are offering money incentives for the Kenyan team to score well in the World Cup.

The team is apparently in high spirits, not least because, despite being "unknowns", it had a spectacular 1996 success, and is now, to all intents and purposes, the hope for Africa.

The fact that the South African team is more likely to perform well is unlikely to be perceived as an "African" success. With its all white team, it will be playing "politically incorrect cricket", wrote one sports correspondent in Nairobi. And if the Kenyan team does do well, Elias Makori - due to join the players this week - thinks the reception in Kenya will be ecstatic. "It's normal for atheletes to come home in glory. But cricketers?" When the Kenyan team beat the West Indies in 1996, the public roar even spread to the shopping malls.

It would be the ultimate fillip to spread a growing enthusiasm beyond the urban and social barriers. "I wouldn't mind being dragged to a match or two", says young master Liban, a budding enthusiast who already takes pleasure in playing at his private school. But he is careful not to appear too eager.