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Young cricketers keen to get back their spark

For several years, Kenya’s junior cricketers were a force to reckon with, but just like their seniors, they began wallowing in the doldrums in the mid-2000’s.

The Under 15 team went down the annals of history after winning the inaugural East African championship in Arusha in 2001, but less than 10 years later, things have dramatically changed and the team can barely win a match.

Former international Dan Okinyo, who became the girls’ national team coach in 1999, led the juniors during most of their conquests. However, in 2009 he resigned following a string of poor results.

“I felt I had done my part and I could not teach the girls anything new, so it was best to move on. Peter Ongondo, David Asiji, Joseph Angara and I decided to focus on girls aged between 12 and 19 years,” said Okinyo.

Lethal team

The four wanted to replicate the success they had achieved with the slumping lot that they had refined and turned into one of Africa’s most lethal sides.

In 2011, their efforts were boosted by Cricket Kenya, who organised the first National Junior Championship. Nairobi, Nakuru, Mombasa and Busia each had teams in the tournament held in Nakuru. Nairobi won the championship.

At the 2011 Africa Junior Championship in Arusha, the team fired blanks yet again, but this only gave Okinyo the motivation to push his agenda of revival.

“Stage fright was the main reason we performed poorly, but we had a talented squad, full of hard working players. We decided to start holiday training camps for the girls. We followed them up during the term to make sure that they were training and keeping up with the game while studying,” said Okinyo.

Cricket in schools

The coaches expanded their initiative by introducing cricket in more schools. Angara introduced the game at Roysambu Primary School, and alongside his three colleagues did the same at Kenya High School.

During school games, soft balls were used as the grounds are not ideal for cricket. Hard balls are voided to reduce cases of injuries to other students who use the same field for other sports.

However, at the holiday training camp, the players are taken through hard ball cricket where players receive tips on how to improve their skills.

Ruth Mwende formerly of Daima Primary School and Jane Achieng who was a student at Highridge Primary School, are some of the girls that have gone through the system and graduated to the senior national team.

Okinyo said the current lot looks promising and is likely to be the one to bring glory back to Kenya.

“Vanessa Odhiambo (Martin Luther), Emy Mkirema (Karura Primary) and Sharon Odera (Parklands Arya) are some of the girls that have shown a lot of promise. Another great player, Rose Awuor would have made it to the national team last year but her name was not sent to the International Cricket Council in time and therefore she couldn’t play,” said Okinyo.

This year’s National Junior Cricket Championship will be held in Nairobi, and is expected to showcase more talent.

Round robin

Nairobi and Nakuru will be represented by four teams each, while Mombasa will have two. The games will be played on a round robin basis.

The 20 best players will be picked as the national Under 19 provisional team for the Africa Junior Championship set for December, although the host nation is yet to be announced.

Players who will not be part of the national team will play in the National Junior Cricket League to keep fit, improve their skills and increase experience. The league will start immediately after the National Junior Championship.

Junior cricket’s main challenge is financial constraints.

“At first it was difficult to get basic equipment, but Cricket Kenya stepped in. The game is not fully professional in Kenya, when the girls finish their studies and get jobs, cricket goes out the window,”  said Okinyo.

Noreen Muluya (Kampala), Faith Kingi (Mombasa), Yvonne Mashedi (United Kingdom) and Emma Wangui (Dubai) are some of the players that the team lost owing to work commitments in the last few years.

Because Cricket Kenya offices are near Ruaraka, Okinyo opted to recruit more girls from the neighbouring estates to join the team.

Major slump

“It is easier for girls from Mathare, Huruma and Ruaraka to walk to the training ground. We don’t have worry about logistics such a training field and transport. With time, we shall expand to other areas,” said Okinyo.

Kenyan cricket has suffered a major slump in the last few years. Early this year, the men’s national team was stripped of its One Day International status.

The return to development at the grassroots as initiated by Okinyo, Angara, Asiji and Ongondo could just be the magic touch needed to put Kenya back in the league of great cricket playing nations.