`We beat Test teams and that was something incredible'

Published : Mar 29, 2003 00:00 IST

For the Kenyan cricketers, it has been a World Cup of discovering themselves. It is true that some of them did not give themselves much chance against the elite of world cricket, but the minnows ended up smashing some of the established Test teams.

Vijay Lokapally

For the Kenyan cricketers, it has been a World Cup of discovering themselves. It is true that some of them did not give themselves much chance against the elite of world cricket, but the minnows ended up smashing some of the established Test teams.

This was so different from what the world had assessed the chances of various teams in the tournament. A place for Kenya in the semifinals was incredible and many stunned experts accepted grudgingly that the little African nation had done wonderfully well to achieve what had remained beyond the reach of South Africa, England and the West Indies.

In Kenya, for a long time, the game was a pastime for the whites and the Indians. The blacks would watch with interest from a distance and it took a while for the locals to believe that they could also participate.

The Kenya Cricket Association, with dedicated officials like Sharad Ghai in the forefront, had its task cut out. The Indian connection did help them as well. When the team qualified for the World Cup, under the guidance of coach Alvin Kallicharran, there were murmurs that the team did not deserve a place. But a shock victory over the West Indies put things in the right perspective. Kenya was a team with a future!

Sandeep Patil, coach of the team for four years, reflected on the reality. "It was a dream for us to reach the Super Six stage but none expected a place in the semifinals. We beat Test teams and that was something incredible,'' said Patil.

Obviously it was hard work for everyone. Experts from the International Cricket Council played an important role and Patil was quick to acknowledge. "I shouldn't get the credit alone. The biggest contribution came from the players themselves who did the hard part of the campaign. The KCA officials worked tireless for years to give the team the confidence to compete with the best. One man cannot make the difference in such a big project and I must say it's been wonderful team work,'' remarked Patil.

The toughest job for Patil was to keep the players motivated. There was hardly any cricket for them and it was frustrating. Patil recalled "I used to struggle to keep them focused. There was no cricket for them and though we tried different ideas it was tough. We would talk of winning and winning but against who, there was no opposition. And it was not easy to concentrate by just having `nets' and long-drawn camps.''

But Patil was convinced that the team was sure to learn and improve. He had seen the talent and it was now a matter of getting experience and exposure on the big stage. "Of course there never was any doubt on Kenya's cricketing talent. All they needed was reglar competition,'' said Patil. The league in Nairobi offered little in terms of competition and this led to the KCA inviting teams from abroad to come and keep the game going.

Here, the Indian connection worked. State teams of Punjab, Baroda, Mumbai, Karnataka toured the country and this helped Kenya assess its talent. Then more visits saw the `A' teams of India, Sri Lanka, England, Pakistan and Zimbabwe help Kenya hone its skills and the team was now ready to take on the big guns of international cricket.

``Hats off to the KCA officials. They ran the show with some great sacrifices. I've seen them from close quarters and I know how hard they've worked. Lack of funds was a great constraint but somehow they kept the show on. The cricketers were given the best possible facilities,'' revealed Patil.

It should also be mentioned here that a tour by the West Indies to Kenya in the run up to the World Cup was a significant feature. The West Indies Cricket Board did not charge any gurantee fee as the team travelled to Kenya after its tour to Zimbabwe in 2001. "That was a kind gesture by the West Indians because that tour was a much-needed boost for the players,'' said Patil.

On the long journey that Kenyan cricket experienced, veteran Aasif Karim said "it was great. Quite eventful and as a senior member of the team I must say that the team deserved it. We worked really hard to reach this far.''

Reaching the Super Six was a feat and making it to the semifinals meant much more for the Kenyan cricketers. As Karim commented "this World Cup has changed the face of cricket in my country. Everyone is now talking of cricket. It's never happened before. Even the Government is taking interest and that's good news for us. The acceptance of cricket is the biggest gift for us. In my opinion it is the turning point for Kenyan cricket. The bottom line, of course, will be professionalism and how we make the most of this fine achievement."

Karim has been integral part of Kenya's progress, playing for 20 years now. "I think the ICC Trophy in 1995 was a benchmark in Kenyan cricket because we qualified to play the World Cup then. It was such a great experience, playing in front of big crowds. It was a very significant period for us,'' said Karim.

Once Patil arrived, he introduced some professionalism at every level. The players were offered contracts and made to believe that they have talent in them. "I told them that on the field it was a matter of who played better that day. Kenyan cricket needs more competition. The players can't wait for a World Cup or an ICC Trophy to showcase their talent. I'm sure with more cricket they'll only improve,'' noted Patil.

The Kenyans realise that this is a critical phase for them. As Karim observed "it's of paramount importance that we get together and look positively ahead. We need to identify our weak points and work on them. We need to take stock of what we have and what we need to have. Here, I must say that the support from Test nations is a must for us and of course India will be the most important friend for us. India has always had a soft spot for Kenya and we shall bank on their support.''

Looking back, Patil obviously felt delighted at the way things had gone for him personally. After just five months as coach of the India team in 1996, he had been banished by the Board. All he got was four assignments and all overseas — Singapore, England, Sharjah and Toronto. He had taken over as coach on April 1 and, in his first team meeting at Chennai, he remembered "I told the boys on that day that I hope I don't get fooled.''

He was fooled indeed as he lost the job in just five months. And then he went to Kenya. As he explained "I had to prove a point to myself. When I was removed from the job I was told that I couldn't motivate the players. So, I challenged myself and I think I did enough to motivate the Kenyan players.'' He did experience a minor crisis when captain Maurice Odumbe accused him of being biased. Odumbe had to step down, Patil continued, and says today, "I've no complaints. The issue was over in 10 minutes. There's total harmony in the team and Odumbe has played a very important role, along with Steve (Tikolo) to keep the team going.

"I must also mention Karim, Ravindu (Shah), Hitesh (Modi), (Thomas) Odoyo, Kennedy (Obuya) and all of them. It's been a great team and the collective effort is what really helped the players.''

After the World Cup, Karim shall return to his business of photocopying, with cricket still at heart. "I don't know what role I can have but I would love to be involved in whatever capacity,'' said Karim, who has named his company Copycats, and is also involved in media work, bringing out a monthly cricket magazine and doing some radio work in Nairobi.

For Patil, his home in Mumbai beckons him. "It's been five years now and I've to return to India. I'll always be available and always remain a student of the game.

"I'll go back and play my street cricket in Shivaji Park. I hope the Board finds me some cricket job in India,'' the affable Patil concluded.

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