Kenya's dream run

I have always had a special affection for Kenya since the day in the 1999 World Cup when a young African man arrived in the Press Box, wearing training kit.

TED CORBETT

Kenyan wicket-keeper Kennedy Obuya races in to run out Zimbabwe's Andy Blignaut (right) in the Super Six match . — Pic. AP-

I have always had a special affection for Kenya since the day in the 1999 World Cup when a young African man arrived in the Press Box, wearing training kit. He plonked his laptop in the seat next to mine and began to type in that casual way which often shows that the writer has thought out his words already and knows exactly where his story will begin and end.

He turned to me and asked a question or two and then, with just as little ceremony, spun on his heel and left. A few minutes later, dressed in the training gear he had worn in the Press Box, he was out on the field as part of the Kenyan squad.

That little scene came flooding back to me this week when I watched — in pretty much the same state of amazement — as Kennedy Obuya raced the length of the pitch to run out Andy Blignaut while Blignaut and Andy Flower were sprawling at the other end.

Three hours later Kenya had beaten Zimbabwe by seven wickets and entered the semi finals. I could not have been more pleased, not least because it has forced some of those commentators, who appeared to think that progress by Kenya was the devil's work, to revise their opinions.

What they thought when Asif Karim reduced the Australian middle order to a shambles in the last Super Six match cannot be imagined.

We were watching not some heavily trained, over-coached, fully professional side but a bunch of what used to be called amateurs. And they were successful too. Do you have a problem with that? I don't.

The Kenyan players earn no more than 435 pounds sterling a month from their cricket and they pay for their own equipment. Compare that with the half a million pounds that probably flows into the pockets of Nasser Hussain every year and the trillions alleged to be pocketed by Sachin Tendulkar and you will see that the earnings of the men from Kenya are hardly as much as the old English amateurs used to collect in lodging money, expenses and train fares.

By the way, neither Hussain nor Sachin pay for their pads, bats and gloves.

So far in the World Cup, Kenya have earned half a million dollars and that money is meant to be shared among the squad. Don't hold your breath. Cash and cricket don't always mix in Kenya. Sometimes the cheques get lost in the post.

It does not seem to worry their most skilful cricketer Maurice Odumbe who says he earns around 5,000 pounds a year. (Compare that with the 25,000 pounds a year which now goes into the wallet of every young English cricketer.)

"I'm not playing for money,'' he says. "I'm playing for the experience. My salary is good compared with the average wage in Kenya. I used to have to work as well — as a travel consultant. Now I have a contract and I can play everytime Kenya have a one-dayer.

"Cricket is the top sport in the country at the moment even compared with athletics and football. Until now it has been a family thing. The Tikolos, the Sujis and the Obuyas grew up in the same area. But it is expanding through the schools and one day we will be right at the top in this sport too.''

Oh yes, they hope to make a big dollar or two from their cricket one day but at the moment these men are playing because they love the game, trying to make the most of their rare opportunity to hit the television screens — everywhere except their own country where sport means middle distance running, and who can blame them for that — and just simply enjoying themselves.

They run swiftly between the wickets, they field as if the lives of their loved ones depended on every stop and every catch and they bowl straight.

Did someone call those the old-fashioned first principles of cricket? More likely they are unchanging first principles of a game that has remained side on and straight throughout the last 200 years; certainly in the 126 years since the first Test in Melbourne on the Ides of March 1877.

These Kenyans don't have the skill to make vast variations in their bowling, their batting is often as crude and club standard as it is possible to be; but it obeys the basic rules of cricket.

Kenya undoubtedly had good fortune on their way to the Super Six stage thanks to the understandable reluctance of the New Zealanders to travel to Nairobi. The Kiwis had almost been blown up twice in foreign lands and they could be excused for thinking that third time they might not be so lucky.

Zimbabwe owed their place to England's decision not to play in Harare and now Kenya have beaten the evidently dissembling Zimbabwe team — Heath Streak the captain is worried about his parents who have been forced to surrender their farm, Henry Olonga and Andy Flower have retired after being in open revolt against the government, and others are on the verge of quitting — all that must be forgotten.

Correspondents from the posher British papers seemed to think some law of nature had been broken because a non-Test playing country had outstripped their betters.

Those of us brought up on the early rounds of the FA Cup, when shock waves of the sort created by Kenya are the meat and drink of the competition, see nothing unusual in such a performance.

As a teenager I stood on the terraces of Bootham Crescent in 1954-55 when York City beat Tottenham Hotspur and, like the rest of the city, I waited anxiously to hear the result of their semi-final against Newcastle United.

Later as a reporter I watched Hereford United beat Newcastle and West Ham United. I expect minnows to defeat giants; it is part of the rich pattern of a knock-out cup. However I don't suggest that a cup victory should mean promotion into the higher ranks of the long term game.

York City were not invited to join the First Division after they missed the way to Wembley so narrowly; Hereford had to work their way into the Football League; Yeovil Town, the most famous non-league giant-killers, are all but forgotten.

So we must not expect to see Kenya as the 10th Test country. Indeed their lack of first class infrastructure, the self-evident absence of enough quality players to put together a Kenyan second team and their poor financial position means there is no hope of such a promotion for years to come. There is a way they can step forward, however. Zimbabwe are, due to the state of their country, their own lack of players and the coming retirement of their stars, in just as much trouble.

So why does ICC not fund the return to the arena of that old-fashioned concept East Africa? It makes a lot of sense. The side could play its matches in both countries, it ought to attract a wider audience and the mix of the largely white Zimbabwe and the largely black Kenya will at least provide a wider player base.

It makes more sense than the bid by ICC to take cricket to America. They plan to play a couple of Cup matches there during the 2007 World Cup as well as one in Toronto and another in Bermuda but they must not imagine that will bring instant wealth, or sponsorship from the White House or that the game will replace American football and baseball in the affections of 300 million people.

That will only happen if they make cricket more like baseball. Unthinkable? Not at all.

Watching Obuya race down the pitch to run out Blignaut I wondered if it might be possible to incorporate the baseball concept of a double play into one-day cricket. After all both Flower and Blignaut deserved to be out and, as they were both arguably out of their ground, they should both have been out.

It needs only a minor change to the Laws to ensure that when a catch is taken a run-out can follow off the same delivery.

You will say that such a basic alteration to cricket is undesirable, and makes the game too much like baseball.

Yes, I take your point. But then none of us suspected that Kenya could make it to the semi-finals while New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan were all seeking ways to improve their performances.