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A tale of two countries

By Prem Panicker
March 12, 2003 11:53 IST
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It was, when you get right down to it, a match-up between a team that wanted to prove the whole world wrong, and a team that just wanted a quick end to a seemingly endless nightmare.

Given that, the result -- an emphatic seven-wicket win for Kenya inside 26 overs, was the obvious result.

Kenya's motivations have been obvious, in the way they have played their cricket and in the comments made by coach Sandeep Patil and captain Steve Tikolo. Throughout the tournament, much critical comment has revolved around Kenya's "unfitness" to be in the Super Sixes.

And the Kenyans have gone hey, hang on, we beat two Test nations in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, we did not ask New Zealand not to come visiting, why blame us?

They have a point -- and they have underlined that point in the best possible fashion by knocking over a third Test team, Zimbabwe. Had they lost here and still made the semi-finals by hook or crooked points system, the cries of the nay-sayers would have gained in volume -- but it will take a rather courageous commentator to grudge them their achievement, after this emphatic win against Zimbabwe.

The various match reports arising out of this game might leave a point or two unmentioned -- and the chief of these points relates to Steve Tikolo''s captaincy. It has been obvious throughout the tournament that Kenya has an awareness of its strengths: bowlers who can bowl one side of the wicket and give very little away in terms of width or length, or even pace, for opposing batsmen to work with.

They back this up with a packed field on one side of the wicket and brilliant fielding that lends an edge to the bowling.

What was interesting in this match was the way in which Tikolo kept up the pressure, right from the get-go; and as Zimbabwe lost wickets in a heap, Tikolo maintained that perfect balance between attack and defense, stifling even Andy Flower and forcing the master batsman into taking what proved to be a fatal risk. It was a tough, no-nonsense display of captaincy, with the bowlers and fielders backing up the game plan to the hilt.

Fittingly, there was bravado in the way Kenya finished the game off. Thomas Odoyo, who played a perfectly paced innings wherein he concentrated on staying at the wicket and behind the line of all that was hurled at him, opening out with a fine leg glance and two superb pulls off Andy Blignaut bowling with pace (148.6 k the fastest) and considerable venom.

At the other end, Maurice Odumbe produced the finest demonstration of inside out driving through extra cover seen in a long time: he started off by dancing down to Grant Flower in the latter's first over and slamming a drive over long on; when Flower adjusted his line to the leg stump in his next over, Odumbe ran around it with twinkling footwork and drove fluently through extra cover; when Flower went even further outside leg in what proved to be the final over of the match, Odumbe merely stepped up his foot-speed, and still managed to play the shot, thrice in succession -- as displays of sustained aggression go, this one was a superb token of the confidence flowing through this side.

Kenya has problems in plenty -- most of its players have been around for a long time and are reaching their sell-by date; some of the younger ones like Collins Obuya (who, today, produced an absolute beauty to have Dion Ibrahim stumped) are on record as saying that they don't want to play cricket, since it is not a paying profession.

And there is no bench strength -- startlingly, Kenya could not even put together that initial list of 30 players for the World Cup squad, managing to dig up just 21 names to satisfy the ICC.

The team's performance here is a perfect opportunity -- the team will be heroes back home; the ICC and the senior nations need to step in and help use the platform to accelerate progress. Many solutions exist: sponsoring camps in that country, inviting the Kenyans to play in the domestic competitions of senior nations, sending A teams on tour on a regular basis and generally, making a lot of cricket happen, as that is the only way to build, foster, and enhance interest in the game.

Kenya have clearly shown that they deserve this backing -- it will be interesting to see how the ICC and senior countries go from here.

Zimbabwe's story, in contrast, is sad -- and that is an understatement.

Ahead of this tournament, a corrupt Zimbabwe Cricket Union first asked the players to play for free, then offered them a total of 8,000 dollars, to be shared among them, as match fees for the entire tournament.

Obviously, whatever money exists in Zimbabwe cricket has gone into private coffers -- and that is not an encouraging sign for budding cricketers, assuming that is that Zimbabwe has any.

Then there is the politics, that has made a complete mess of team selection and preparation. Alistair Campbell, clearly their best batsman after Andy Flower, was dropped from the Cup squad because his political opinions were not to the liking of the powers-that-be.

Henry Olonga was dropped after one game, for the crime of wearing a black armband to mourn the death of democracy in his country -- when, by rights, he should have received the red badge of courage for that act of heroism.

Campbell was called two days ahead of this game and told he would be playing; his wife packed his cricketing kit, he went in to the game with one net by way of preparation after a two month layoff, and it showed.

Olonga, meanwhile, has clearly been given to understand he has no future left in that country -- and his uncertain future had reduced him to a bundle of nerves when he stepped on to the field today.

Even worse, is the plight of Andy Flower, Olonga's partner in that courageous protest. Flower clearly realizes his future is over; he has already packed off his wife and children to England rather than leave them to the tender mercies of a repressive regime and is set to follow them as soon as this competition is over.

In the meantime, he has announced his retirement from international cricket (what choice did he have, anyway?) -- and the game has lost one of its finest contemporary batsmen, a player who two years ago was in fact hailed in all ratings as the number one in the game.

Flower came out to play, today, still clearly feeling the effects of his association, earlier in this tournament, accusing him of "not trying" -- the unkindest cut of all, really, for it is Andy, and brother Grant, who have time and again done the batting for the entire country.

Thus, Flower today played not as the situation demanded, but as his personal plight warranted -- he ensured that he had runs against his name, even if that meant taking a single off the first delivery and watching, from the other end, as his less experienced colleagues marched to the middle and back again.

Zimbabwe was present in the flesh, absent in the spirit, today -- and that was the saddest sight in a Cup that has seen more than its quota of sadness.

The real challenge for the ICC, here on, is to ensure that cricket does not die out in that country -- and against the backdrop of the oppressive Robert Mugabe regime, the starvations, the killings and the reluctance of most countries to tour there, the ICC has a huge task ahead of it.

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Prem Panicker