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Cricket Special

BRING BACK THE BOWLERS

My favourite World Cup moment? That is easy. It was at the Nairobi Gymkhana ground, on a sunny afternoon in February 2003, when Maurice Odumbe bowled Dilhara Fernando to seal Kenya’s group stage win over Sri Lanka by 53 runs. The Sri Lankans were all out for 157, and Fernando looked as if he just couldn’t believe it. He and his partner, Russell Arnold, loitered at the wicket, hanging their heads in shame. The Kenyan players, in their green pyjama uniforms, surged past them to Steve Tikolo, their revered captain and the only member of the team to have played first-class cricket; and then he and they went on a wild, celebratory sprint across the ground.

It would be wrong to suppose many Kenyans noticed this triumph. Cricket, which revolved around just three or four clubs in Mombasa and Nairobi, barely registered in the country. When Tikolo led his players, later that evening, into Gypsy’s, a bar where my friends and I sometimes drank, almost no one recognised them. Had they not been spotted, huddled unassumingly in a corner, by one of Kenyan cricket’s few aficionados, Adrian Blomfield, The Daily Telegraph’s man in Africa, the victorious cricketers would have had to pay for their own drinks. As it was, Adrian climbed onto a bar stool, demanded three rousing cheers for Steve and his Kenyan heroes and another round of celebrations began.

The first in a glorious run of victories that would take the Kenyan minnows all the way to the World Cup semi-finals, the moment was in several ways momentous. It was a marvellous sporting achievement by a hardworking team at the zenith of its powers, based on tight fielding, straight bowling and, in the absence of a batting star, now that Tikolo’s powers were waning, workmanlike batting totals, in which almost everyone pitched in with double figures. It also reflected well on cricket’s long-stuttering efforts to spread the game beyond its traditional centres; in those early, glorious weeks of the 2003 tournament—which also included wins against Canada, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe —the Kenyans looked like a real emerging cricketing nation. Some foreign commentators, imagining that the country’s cricketing roots were deeper than they were, pondered whether Kenya might be the next Test-playing country.

This was also a hopeful time in Kenya, which cricket, in the uncanny way it often does, was reflecting. A general election held two months previously had swept away the corrupt regime of Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s ruler for almost a quarter of a century. The new government was led by a former Moi deputy, Mwai Kibaki, but also included less tarnished figures and, importantly in Kenya, also represented a cross-section of the country’s feuding tribes. They included the Luo, Kenya’s second most populous ethnic group, which hails from the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. A symbol of longstanding disgruntlement with Moi, the Luo produced many of Kenya’s most brilliant lawyers and politicians, as well as a vast, impoverished and aggrieved multitude of Nairobi slum-dwellers—and most of the country’s best cricketers.

This was a classic rags-to-flannels cricketing success story. Most Kenyan cricket was and is based around Asian sporting clubs—such as the Sir Ali Muslim Club, founded by Gujarati migrants—which typically employed local black youths as ground-staff. In the 1980s and early 90s these poor youths and their friends, from Nairobi’s mainly- Luo slums, took to practising cricket in the club nets, with such distinction that they were quickly fast-tracked into the club teams. That is how the mainstay of Kenya’s recent cricket sides, the two Odumbe brothers, the four Tikolo brothers, including Steve (who belonged to the Luo’s cousin tribe, the Luhya) and the three Otieno brothers, including Collins Obuya, a former vegetable seller, who took 5-24 against Sri Lanka with his bouncy leg-spin, all got their start in the game. One of their coaches, Robin Boyd-Moss, an elegant batsman for Cambridge University and Northamptonshire who had settled in Nairobi to run a garage, reckoned Steve and Maurice were two of the most talented young cricketers he had ever seen.

Watching them triumph, from the rickety press gallery of the Gymkhana ground, was for me deeply moving. Kenya had been my home for three years, and I felt deeply loyal to it. For most of that time, I had been preoccupied with less cheerful things than cricket—reporting on over a dozen wars, in Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. To see a nation that I loved on the rise, as I fancied it, while sitting in the sunshine, as the Kenyan players whooped and bounced around the boundary, and with friends around me, made for a pleasant change from the violence. It was a happy moment.

Kenya’s success in the 2003 tournament also spoke well for cricket’s future. The phrase Cricket World Cup has always been more than a touch presumptuous. Cricket can reasonably claim to be the word’s second most popular sport after football, and far more international than, say, baseball, with its bogus World Series; but while most cricket fans live in one country, it cannot truly claim to be global. All the same, in Kenya’s triumph there was a promise of the game spreading; as there was in the poor fortunes of some of the other established powers. South Africa, Pakistan, England and West Indies were all knocked out in the group stages, while Kenya, Zimbabwe and New Zealand progressed: this made the 2003 World Cup a great one for the smaller cricketing powers.

All World Cups have a defining sub-plot or two, encapsulating the state of cricket, or pointing to its future, and which live starker in the memory than the tournament’s outcome. In 1983, it was the stunning rise of India on the cricket field; in 1987—for the Reliance World Cup—it was the rise of India off it. In 1992 it was coloured clothing and the success of Imran Khan and his young tigers. The Wills World Cup, in 1996, was about PepsiCo, pinch-hitting and paisa—courtesy of Jagmohan Dalmiya, it was a more brazen display of sports-commerce than cricket had ever thought to see. The 1999 rendition was about Australia, the first of its three triumphs on the trot; 2003 was about Kenya and the minnows, a promise of real growth in the global game. But how stillborn that has turned out to be.

None of the minnows, with perhaps slight exception of Bangladesh, has pushed on since then. Cricket in Zimbabwe still languishes in penury and semi-isolation, struggling to recover from the ravages that President Mugabe’s excesses have wrought in the sport and more generally. Kenya, which lost its ODI status last year, along with Canada and the Netherlands, is in a much worse condition.

After the 2003 World Cup, it played in a quadrangular in Sharjah—and then only two more ODIs in three years. The Kenyan cricket administration meanwhile dissolved into scandal and bickering, and, one by one, its star players faded. Odumbe was convicted of associating with a bookie and banned; Obuya, after an undistinguished spell with Warwickshire, got the yips and could hardly bowl. Tikolo, after struggling with his fading reactions a little too long, retired, disgusted by the dreadful squandering of cricket’s big opportunity to spread in Kenya. New horizons have since opened for the game, of course. As Kenya has faded, Afghanistan is on the rise. Yet none of the newbies are as competitive as Kenya was in its prime, and last year’s carve-up of the ICC, by India and its English and Australian allies, has left all the associate members hundreds of millions of dollars worse off.

Writing amid the gloom of an English winter, I worry that this will be the leitmotif of the 2015 World Cup—tyranny of the big beast nations, as signified by the ICC carve-up, and the retreat of cricket’s global frontier. Even after the painfully elongated opportunity of the 42 poll games, it is almost impossible to imagine any of the minnows progressing to the quarter-finals this year. Despite the essential unpredictability of the one-day game, it is also not much easier to imagine England, India or West Indies going beyond the quarter-finals. England can’t score 250 consistently; India can’t take 10 wickets; the West Indies selectors, after their latest bout of IPL-related turmoil, have left some of their best players—including Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard—at home, demoralising and annoying the rest.

Viewed from the chilly depths English winter, it is hard even to detect much enthusiasm for this tournament; the English Premier League football season is on, the six nations rugby tournament is beginning, and English cricket fans never do get too terribly stirred up by the one-day game. Victory in next summer’s Ashes series, in England, to revenge last year’s Mitchell Johnson-inspired whitewash, would be far more celebrated than an inaugural English World Cup win. To be fair, neither victory looks at all likely.

It is an analysis borne of a grey English February. So here, for more cheer, are three happier subplots for the 2015 World Cup. If any of these become reality, this World Cup could turn out to be a great tournament for cricket.

>>> An inaugural World Cup win for New Zealand. Under the gung-ho captaincy of Brendon McCullum, this has never looked more possible. The Black Caps have had a strong run-in to the tournament, having won four of their past five series and successfully chased scores over 250 three times—against India, Pakistan and England—in the past two years. In Kyle Mills, Tim Southee and Trent Boult, they also have fast and consistently straight bowlers, who can be a handful for any side, especially on their own seaming pitches. The return of Daniel Vettori, New Zealand’s most capped one-day player, has also added ballast to the bowling—and, if the Kiwis win, a heart-warming story of personal commitment and overdue triumph.

>>> A second World Cup victory for Pakistan. This seems scarcely possible, given the security and other catastrophes that have befallen Pakistani cricket. But if any team could soar above such misfortunes—and, after all, it only really takes three tough wins on the trot to win the tournament—it is the Pakistani one. For that to happen, Mohammad Irfan, the seven-foot-tall pacer, will have to excel in an attack badly weakened by the loss of Saeed Ajmal. Shahid ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi will probably have to come off with the bat at least once; and Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq must continue to roll back the years. It looks unlikely; but victory for one of the worst- managed and unluckiest teams in world cricket would be heartening for neutrals, good for cricket and a great fillip for Pakistan, which could do with one.

>>> A proper contest between bat and ball. This would be not merely overdue but infinitely more important than the identity of the tournament winner. The dominance of bat over ball, as a cumulative result of flat pitches, batting-friendly rules, innovations in batting and the impoverishing of bowling skills as a consequence, is a calamity for cricket, which is hurting the 50-over game especially. It makes it less interesting—resembling an extended T20 game, without the necessary extra nuance. It risks making a generation of young cricketers—as India may now be finding out—uncompetitive in the more exacting examination of Test-match cricket, by which they will in the end be judged.

The World Cup has been a prime illustration of this skewing of cricket’s intrinsic competition. Around 14,000 runs were scored in each of the 1996 and 1999 World Cups; since 2003, 18,000 have been scored. I am sceptical that the drop-in pitches to be used in the World Cup’s early stages will redress the balance: they will be flat. But Australia’s big grounds and the introduction of two bouncers an over and new balls at either end should help counteract the slogathon that the World Cup has become. Whoever wins this 2015 tournament, I hope it is through the excellence of their bowling, as much as their batting, and I hope a bowler is the player of the tournament. That would be a subplot to give hope to cricket lovers everywhere.