Local kids idolised AB and Kohli, now want to bat like Smit and Erasmus: Namibia Cricket chief executive

In the past, youngsters would idolise AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli. But following Namibia’s performance at the 2021 T20 World Cup, kids on the streets want to bat like local heroes JJ Smit and Gerhard Erasmus, says Namibia Cricket chief executive Johan Muller.

JJ Smit struck a quickfire unbeaten 16-ball 31 as Namibia stunned Sri Lanka by 55 runs in the T20 World Cup 2022 opener.

JJ Smit struck a quickfire unbeaten 16-ball 31 as Namibia stunned Sri Lanka by 55 runs in the T20 World Cup 2022 opener. | Photo Credit: AFP

In the past, youngsters would idolise AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli. But following Namibia’s performance at the 2021 T20 World Cup, kids on the streets want to bat like local heroes JJ Smit and Gerhard Erasmus, says Namibia Cricket chief executive Johan Muller.

David Wiese’s 55 off 36 balls went in vain as Namibia fell short against UAE and crashed out in Round 1 of the T20 World Cup in Australia. However, the early exit belied the progress Namibia has made in T20I cricket in recent years.

Earlier, Namibia, ranked 14th in the world, shocked Asia Cup champion Sri Lanka by 55 runs. In 2021, Namibia played in its first T20 World Cup and qualified for the Super 12s, beating a Test side, Ireland, to take its place alongside the game’s elite in the next phase.

Sportstar caught up with Namibia Cricket chief executive Johan Muller to better understand how the country and its players are breaking new ground in the sport. 

Q How has the performance at the 2021 T20 World Cup impacted interest, exposure and the growth for the game in Namibia?

It had a major impact because the performance of the men’s team at the 2021 T20 World Cup was the best team performance by a Namibian side in any form of team sport — be it the Olympics or a World Cup. It wasn’t just the cricket lovers who watched it; every Namibian watched it — it was broadcast in local pubs and on SuperSport, the preferred TV channel for sporting exposure. The people could associate with their team winning. We are a small country and lack that competitive edge on the world stage because of limited exposure. But with this team competing with the world’s best and beating some of them, the Namibians feel we are good enough to compete internationally. It has done a lot for the interest in cricket in the country, not just fans and commercial partners but also for the youngsters who idolise Namibian cricketers as local heroes. In the past, it was mainly players like AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli. But now, kids on the streets want to bat like JJ Smit and Gerhard Erasmus, which we wanted to achieve - a local hero for a local Namibian child. It means you don’t have to go out of your country to achieve your dream. You can achieve it by staying where you are.

Q By attaining ODI status in 2019, Namibia qualified for ICC funding. How significant was that for the board and the team financially and what are some of its benefits?

Attaining ODI status in 2019 was very critical. It’s what we had aspired for 10 years before that. We fell short every second year that we participated in the qualifiers. The benefit is that the team would see three years of World Cup League 2 cricket. So, you get stability in terms of income. If you speak from a Full Member’s perspective, the funding difference isn’t lot. But from where we were, the increase from 1,25,000 US dollars per year to 6,50,000 US dollars per year enabled us to retain players and roll out player contracts. It has also helped us appoint more professional coaching staff to perform at the highest level and ensure that we compete against better teams. The Cricket World League 2 is in the latter stage of the competition, and Namibia is placed well in terms of win percentage. So, we hope we can retain that ODI status for another three-year cycle because that will help us develop our U-16 and U-19 teams and ensure players from that bracket get better coaching and exposure with more tours. That will lead to improvement in skills to the level where they are ready to replace players from the senior team when the time comes.

Q Do you think that Associates are still playing too few games and that ICC should be doing more?

We have to globalise the game, not just from the Namibian perspective. One way we have done that — which is not normal procedure for Associate members — is by attracting matches and teams into the country. We want to host international cricket. We managed to host five tournaments in 2021. In 2022, we are hosting eight tournaments and participating in 12. We want to attract teams to come and prepare in Namibia on their way to a qualifier. We have also created TV production and digital production teams, brought on commentators, and managed to sell that production package to international broadcasters, which on a digital platform, provides exposure to Indian fans on FanCode and to Pakistan fans on Geo Sport. There’s DStv in South Africa and Africa too. That has enabled us to attract international sponsors, and through that we started performing on a global scale and attracting foreign direct investment from international investors. It is a tool that we capitalised on.

Q How did the COVID-19 crisis affect Cricket Namibia?

When I presented at the ICC conference, I put a graph on the screen indicating that Namibia had the highest death rate ratio compared to all other countries in the world. If you compare death rate per million people, the third wave in June 2021 was extraordinary in a bad sense. In a small population, statistics aren’t just numbers; they have a name. The person that passes away is someone you know. That said, one fortunate thing is our government opened our borders quite regularly in between spikes. Whenever it was open, we attracted teams to travel in. We grew domestic cricket quite massively. That’s also one of the reasons why in the 2021 quarterly development program, we managed to grow our participation level from 19,000 to 69,000 kids. That is the highest number in Africa. One out of every five primary school kid had access to cricket in 2021. That is a statistic we are proud of and are committed to growing, and in that sense, we were able to make something positive out of the dire situation due to the pandemic. [In July 2021, Namibia, which has a population of 2.5 million, had the world’s highest daily death rate, at 22 per million people, according to Our World in Data].

Q From 2024, the men’s T20 World Cup will expand to 20 teams, with the first round abolished. Your views and the impact it can have, not just on Namibia Cricket but on associate nations in general?

It is a great thing. Not just the 20 teams. What is also good is that you won’t have this initial round that leads into a Super 12 phase. The world still sees it as a qualifying round which it is not. We played last year and this year in the first round. We have got eight teams divided equally into two groups. Two top sides from each group go through to Super 12s. But the popular perception was we still had to qualify for it even though we played the main event. So, the change in 20 teams means there will be four pools of five each, and you’ll be with two prominent full members. It provides access directly to play high level teams, and I think that’s great for the tournament. Namibia beating Sri Lanka and Scotland beating West Indies shows that Associate level cricket is closer to Full Members than they would think, especially in T20s, where small margins make big impact. The new structure from ICC is perfect for the world to see that talent does exist in associate level cricket and provide teams like us the opportunity to measure ourselves against the best. We saw where we fell short in 2021, and we had a year to work on it, and we showed improvement this time - you can only grow if you get that kind of exposure.

Q Namibia will also co-host the 2027 ODI World Cup. Tell us about the ambition behind such a move and the challenges you foresee with regards to the government in hosting an event like this?

That is a big event for us. We thank CSA for allowing us to partner them in this mega event. It is the first time Namibia will host an event of this scale. We are focussing on getting our government to understand the impact of the World Cup on Namibia - from tourism to employment levels. It is critical that we finalise a strategy on how to get the most out of this opportunity. Besides, it also helps to develop infrastructure so that we can compete in terms of facilities... not just in a Namibian way but also internationally.

Q The Global T20 tournament against two club sides - Imperial Lions and Lahore Qalandars - what was the motivation behind an endeavour like this and what were some of its benefits?

It is not just club sides we played. These were franchise sides, if you want to call it that. The Lions play with six Proteas in their team, while Lahore Qalandars are PSL winners. So, you can hardly call them club teams. Reeza Hendricks and Temba Bavuma are prominent names in the South African squad... so, it was high-quality cricket on display. You could see it with scores of 180-plus being chased down... two matches went to the last ball... for us, it was a way to play more competitive cricket. All top countries have depth in terms of player pools, and the margins between their best 100 players are small.  We are not that fortunate, so when we play the best provincial sides from top countries, we know that we can play against high-quality cricketers - it was an exceptional tournament. From a commercial point of view, we believed that T20 franchise leagues like the IPL, CPL, and BBL are starting to saturate, and your best players can play in only so many leagues. Most teams break even after five years, and that is not a financial risk we were willing to take... the other avenue was of pursuing teams to travel to Namibia, so you don’t incur player costs involved with T20 leagues because the team already has contracted players and they see it as a pre-season game. We sold those rights to several broadcasters across the globe, and this is our strategy in terms of attracting commercial income... we managed to achieve our first-year goal - we are close to breaking even already. It won’t overlap with the Asia Cup and it’ll be just before it. So, it will be very exciting.

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