Kenya's splendid show

BEFORE the World Cup began, Kenya was considered an also-ran and not expected to progress beyond the preliminary stage. But pundits are baffled by the sequence of events which has placed the East African country — more renowned for its exploits in athletics — in the knockout phase of a team sport as sophisticated as cricket.

BEFORE the World Cup began, Kenya was considered an also-ran and not expected to progress beyond the preliminary stage. But pundits are baffled by the sequence of events which has placed the East African country — more renowned for its exploits in athletics — in the knockout phase of a team sport as sophisticated as cricket. The irony of it all is that while Kenya has gone ahead, more illustrious teams from the same continent — South Africa, which started as one of the favourites, and Zimbabwe — were eliminated earlier, with South Africa not even making the Super Six stage. And what more, Kenya is only an Associate Member of the ICC, while South Africa and Zimbabwe enjoy Test status.

Whatever the circumstances that facilitated a somewhat easy passage for Kenya into the elite zone, the fact that its players demonstrated a measure of resilience, spirit and skill cannot be overlooked. True, the team enjoyed the luxury of getting four points from New Zealand, which refused to travel to Nairobi, but the manner in which it overcame a highly rated Sri Lanka must be admired. The resources available for the Kenyan team are meagre, but skipper Steve Tikolo employed them with a measure of ingenuity. Even if one takes the win against Sri Lanka as an aberration, there was merit in the success obtained against Zimbabwe to sew up a place in the last four.

For a country that largely depended on the expatriates, the Englishmen and the Indians, to lay the foundation, the progress in attracting local talent has been quite striking. Steve Tikolo, Maurice Odumbe and Collins Obuya have infused a definitive local flavour and fervour. It is not as though Kenya had caused a flutter only in South Africa. The victory over West Indies in the 1996 edition of the World Cup in Pune sounded a warning that this was a side not to be taken lightly. But the pressure of international cricket being what it is, courting success in big events was not too easy although the team remained in focus in competitions designed for associate member countries.

Against this backdrop, the voices supporting Kenya for getting Test status are likely to grow shriller. Even in 1997 Kenya filled in an application for such a recognition and it is pending with the ICC. Opinion is certainly divided on giving Kenya a place in the big league even after the happenings in South Africa. There is no denying that the application should be assessed from every standpoint, but the ICC simply cannot hurry the process. For, not long ago, the ICC was pressured by vested interests to admit Bangladesh into the Test arena, but what a disaster it has proved to be! Bangladesh was even overwhelmed by Kenya in Nairobi in this World Cup. The long sequence of defeats everywhere is bound to affect the morale of the nation and questions are repeatedly being raised about the wisdom of granting Bangladesh Test status. Some sections feel that the measure was only to boost the bargaining power of the Asian nations in the ICC.

This is not to argue against sanctioning Test status to Kenya, but the issue deserves to be studied in depth. One should not only go by the prevailing circumstances i.e. by the good showing in a single tournament, even though the event may be as prestigious as the World Cup. It is a known fact that cricket in Kenya has not taken deep roots and is still confined to the environs of Nairobi. Even the number of cricketers is not large enough to have a big pool of talent to maintain a standard to match leading cricketing nations. It may be true that India was lowly placed even after World War II despite getting Test status in 1932-33. But it has grown into a giant after 1983, and the fact several un-official series were played to enlarge the base in a vast country cannot go unnoticed. Similar is the case with Pakistan, which recorded a splendid victory over England in 1957 at The Oval, long before India won a Test abroad. Sri Lanka is another example of a country rising in stature after gaining full ICC membership but the emerald Island has a glorious history of the sport projecting several top class personalities fit enough to walk into any contemporary Test team.

It is in the interest of Kenya to resist the temptation of rushing into high octane bilateral series involving a huge expenditure and sponsorship deals. The route to this arena lies in firming up the base, investing substantially in the junior level competitions and coaching so as to acquire a fairly large talent pool. The huge prize money that the Kenyans will receive for their memorable run in this World Cup is bound to motivate the youth of the country. The Kenyan euphoria is understandable and it should be canalised to enhancing the popularity of the game in the country, rather than acquiring the tag of Test status, which is not easily sustainable. Bangladesh is both an example and a warning.