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The decline and fall of Kenyan cricket

Roar Guru
2nd March, 2018
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I first became interested about the cricket in Kenya in early 1984, as a Bangladesh team toured Kenya for a short tour.

In January, Bangladesh had won the first SEA cup, and they went into this tour full of confidence. And although they underperformed during the tour, this tour started a rivalry which lasted for about 20 years, and became very intense in the 1990s.

That’s why before going to the main discussion of this article, I would first like to briefly recall the matches between the two teams as they became arch-rivals.

1984: The cricketing contact between these two emerging powers is established with the Bangladesh team, led by Raquibul Hasan touring Kenya The tour proves to be a disaster for the Tigers; they achieve two face saving wins against the Coaching academy XI and the Combined School XI, but look hapless in the matches against the main Kenya team. especially, the Bangladesh batsmen struggle to cope with the extra pace and bounce of the Nairobi wickets.

1986: Bangladesh beats Kenya by 9 runs in a low scoring match during the third ICC trophy in England. Bangladesh is restricted to only 143; but impressive bowling by medium pacer Badshah and off spinner Lipu leads the Tigers to a victory.

The tournament however proves to be a frustrating affair for both the teams; they both underperform and are eliminated in the group stages.

1990: Both the teams recover well to reach the SFs in the fourth ICC trophy in Holland. Bangladesh eventually finishes third, the Kenyans fourth. The two teams meet in the first group stage with the tigers winning by 3 wickets.

Maurice Odumbe (more about him later) making his Kenya debut, top scores with 41. For Bangladesh, skipper Lipu scores 40, but it’s the future captain Akram Khan who steers the team home with a patient 39*.

1994: Kenya hosts the fifth ICC trophy and finishes runners up to take one of the three WC qualifying places (along with UAE and Holland). Bangladesh fails to make the last four after losing their crunch match against the hosts by 13 runs.

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Batting first; Kenya scores 295/6 from their 50 overs; highly impressive in those days standards. Maurice Odumbe scores an effortless 119 taking full advantage of a depleted Tigers attack.

Still, we fancy our chances in a small ground and in perfect batting conditions. Our openers, Jahangir and Aminul put a century stand to raise our hopes; only to see the middle order failing to build on the advantage.

1995: In Feb. Kenya tours Bangladesh as part of their preparation for the 1996 WC on the subcontinent. Though they are beaten in most of the matches; they gain valuable experience about playing in slow, low bounce pitches. In the 1996 WC Kenya creates a major shock by beating WI.

1997: Both the teams qualify for the 1999 WC. In a rain affected final, the Tigers win by two wickets in the final over.

Steve Tikolo gets the MOM award after scoring a cracking 147 for the Africans; while Odumbe is awarded the player of the tournament award.

In the summer, both the teams are awarded official ODI status.

In Oct. Kenya hosts a three nation event, involving Zim and Ban. Bangladesh loses all their four matches; while Kenya finishes second .The two Kenya-Ban matches scoreboard shows; (Match 1) Kenya 347/3, Ban 197 (all out) (Match 2) Ban 100 (all out0 Kenya 102/2 from just 17 overs.
Nairobi remains an unfavourable venue for the Tigers.

1998: Another tri nation event; this time in India, played under scorching summer heat. Bangladesh record their first ODI win by beating Kenya by 6 wickets at Hyderabad; but the Kenyans win the return fixture and reaches the final where they are beaten by the hosts.

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1999: In March, Dhaka hosts a tri-nation event, with Zim and Kenya. This was part of the preparations for WC in the summer for all the three teams. Zim beat Kenya in the final, as the hosts lose all their 4 matches. In the first match against Kenya; Tikolo’s 106* combined with Odumbe’s 58* ensures an easy eight wicket victory for the Africans.

In the next match between the two, WK batsman Kennedy Oteineo smashes 120 to set up a 73 run victory.

To their great credit, the tigers recover from this setback to perform admirably in the summer WC.

2000: Bangladesh is granted Test status and plays their first Test against India in November. Kenya hosts the ICC knockout event in October.

2003: The World cup sees contrasting fortunes for the two teams. While Bangladesh finishes bottom of their seven team group, in the process losing even to Canada, Kenya reaches the SFs before losing to India. In the match between the two rivals held at Jo’bo, Kenya wins by 32 runs.

M. Odumbe is the MOM after scoring 52* and taking 4/38 with his slow off-breaks.

So, for 20 years there was bitter rivalry between these two emerging cricketing nations. And if anything, the Africans held the edge in this rivalry until that point.

It was around this time, that an ex Pakistani wicketkeeper made the comment that, Kenya, not Bangladesh should have been the 10th Test-playing nation.

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Without going in to argument about this comment; it would be safe to say that at that stage there seemed hardly any doubts that Kenya would be the next Test-playing nation.

Yet, while Bangladesh recovered from their WC disaster to slowly build their reputation, Kenya cricket went downhill from there.

Maurice Odumbe getting banned amidst match fixing allegations in 2004 was a bitter blow. Also, there was players’ strike led by Kenya’s greatest cricketer Steve Tikolo in 2004 protesting irregularities within the cricket authority.

In 2006, Bangladesh whitewashed them 4-0 to show that finally they had got the better of the rivalry; the Kenyans lost their ODI status in 2011, and now they are in the third tier in world cricket standings.

They have no chance of playing in the 2019 WC in England, as they are not even part of the qualifying event that’s starting in Zim in the fourth of this month.

For the remaining part of this article, I would be concentrating only on Kenya cricket and would try to figure out the roots of this gradual decline.

As Kenya cricket developed, it depended too much on couple of players. If anyone analyses the Kenya performances for a decade and a half starting from the early 1990s, two names will appear again and again, Steve Tikolo and Maurice Odumbe.

Both were high class batsmen with rich array of strokes; and both were useful off break bowlers; although Tikolo could bowl medium pace as well. They led the Kenya team in different stages. Generally, Tikolo is regarded as the best cricketer to emerge from Kenya, but Odumbe isn’t far behind. And the two were always on the forefront whenever Kenya achieved major successes in the 1990s.

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At Pune, on 29th Feb. 1996, Kenya upset the mighty Windies in the WC. It was a personal triumph for their captain Odumbe, who was adjudged the MoM.

He missed out with the bat, but had figures of 10-3-15-3 with his immaculate off spin and in conjunction with medium pacer Rajab Ali (3/17) he bowled out the WI team for only 93. As for Tikolo, his 29 was the top score in a low scoring match.

Kenya’s next major success came at Gwalior in May 1998, and yet again Odumbe was the MoM. He scored a classy 83 and then took 3/14 with the ball to set up a famous victory against the hosts.

Tikolo supported him with the ball, taking 3/29. Tikolo scored a classy 106* as Kenya thrashed Bangladesh by eight wickets at Dhaka in Mar. 1999. In the next match between the two, he was out for a duck, but took 3/28 with the ball as the hosts were humiliated again.

In Mar. 2003, Odumbe was the MoM (52* and 4/38) as Kenya beat Bangladesh to progress to the Super Six stage of the WC. Tikolo took 3/14. He didn’t enjoy a great world cup as a batsman, but took vital wickets here and there. And his captaincy was vital for Kenya’s progress to SFs.

So, for more than a decade, these two stars performed admirably with both bat and ball. And their presence gave the team stability.

Sadly, other players failed to contribute enough consistently. Among the others, only Thomas Odoyo, with a batting average of 23.49 and a bowling average of just below 30 (he was a medium pacer), produced consistent performances.

Ravindu Shah, a stylish right handed batsman in the Sir Frank Worrell mould, he impressed everybody scoring three fifties in his first four ODI innings in 1998.

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After a solid performance during the 2003 WC, he was generally regarded as the best batsman among the associate member teams. Yet, injuries combined with internal strife within Kenya cricket meant that he only played two ODIs over the next four years; and although he made a comeback early in 2007, it was only a brief one.

Of course, one reason why Kenya has failed to produce more quality players can be attributed to the fact that cricket has always been a minority sports in Kenya.

Every sports-lover knows about the Kenyan athletes, especially their middle and long distance runners. Among the young generation, football and rugby remain the main passions; and while Kenya is yet to reach world standards in these sports, the hopes remain high and passion is immense.

So, despite the gradual rise of Kenyan cricket during the 1990s, cricket never became much of a priority among the Kenya people. Unlike Bangladesh, it never became the game of the masses.

In fact, for Bangladesh cricket, the biggest achievement of the 1980’s was changing cricket from the sports of the elites, to the sports of the masses. Before that period, most of the Bangladeshi cricketers came from elite family backgrounds mostly from the posh areas of Western and Northern Dhaka.

Outside Dhaka, cricket was popular only in Chittagong and Mymensingh. Yet, it has now become a national passion.

Whenever I go outside Dhaka, I get the impression that cricket is more popular there than in Dhaka itself. Sadly, in Kenya cricket is only popular among certain groups.

Of course, Kenya has a sizeable Indian population, and they have produced some fine players, Asif Karim, Hitesh Modi, Ravndu Shah to just name a few. But, the base for the development of cricket in Kenya always remained small, putting too much pressure on some selected few.

An interesting fact about the Kenya cricket is that it’s not uncommon to see two or top players coming from the same family.

Steve Tikolo’s elder brother Tom Tikolo had captained the Kenya national team, and another brother David, played in the 1996 WC alongside Steve.

Maurice Odumbe’s elder brother Edward, an all rounder played eight ODIs for his country. There is the Obuya family which has produced three ODI cricketers. And there were the Suji brothers, Martin and Otieno.

The list goes on, and it only suggests that there was always only a limited source for cricketing talent in Kenya. Unlike Bangladesh, there was never any widespread growth of the royal game.

Of course, Bangladesh got big help from its neighbours, most noticeably from SL, during the development stages of the 1980s and the 1990s. Kenya was never so lucky. Among their neighbors only Uganda has some organised cricket structure.

More advanced cricketing nations, SA and Zim lie in another part of Africa, some distance away. While, Steve Tikolo did play first class cricket for Border in SA domestic tournament, there was never enough cooperation from the big brothers in the building of Kenya cricket.

So, as things stand, the Kenya cricket is heading in the wrong direction. It’s disappointing, especially form the viewpoint of African cricket.

While more and more major powers are emerging from Asia, Africa cricket seems to be limited to SA and Zim. While Namibia has developed well over the last decade or so, they still remain far behind the top nations of the game.

As for Kenya cricket, major infrastructural development is required to ensure that it doesn’t become a thing of the past.

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