Ask a cricket fan to name the semi-finalists at the 2003 World Cup and the first three teams will probably come to mind easily enough: Australia, India and Sri Lanka.
The side that may be forgotten these days is the fairy tale team of that tournament: Kenya, still the only non-test playing nation to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Kenya were blessed with the best batsman outside Test Cricket at the time in their skipper Steve Tikolo, and had proven international performers such as opening batsman Ravindu Shah, all-rounders Maurice Odumbe and Thomas Odoyo, and left-arm spinner Aasif Karim.
An upset victory over Sri Lanka in Nairobi added to a forfeited win over New Zealand due to the Kiwis’ concerns about security in the Kenyan capital. Together with wins in South Africa over Bangladesh and Canada, the Kenyans made it through to the ‘Super Sixes’ where they defeated fellow tournament hosts Zimbabwe to reach the semi-finals.
Steve Tikolo leads Kenya on a lap of honour after the 2003 World Cup Semi-Final v India in Durban
Fast forward 15 years, and over the past week Kenya have been playing in the World Cricket League Division 3 tournament in Oman in front of a handful of spectators.
Kenya were unsettled on the eve of the tournament by a threatened player boycott due to arguments over selection, and a late change of captain. They then finished fourth of six sides, winning two games but suffering defeats to Oman, USA and Denmark, leaving them languishing in 24th place in the ICC’s one-day rankings.
Having already lost ODI status in 2014 after slipping below 16th in the rankings, Kenya will now play in the ICC’s new ‘Cricket World Cup Challenge League’, giving them just five competitive 50 over international fixtures per year from 2019-2021.
Their only hope of gaining attention on the world stage in the foreseeable future is by qualifying for the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia.
Peter Ongondo was a stalwart of the Kenyan side between 1999 and 2011, taking 78 wickets at an average of 30 in 79 ODIs as a fast-medium bowler, and playing in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cups. In 2003 he was part of the side that lost to India in the semi-finals and since retiring he has moved into coaching.
He took charge of the Kenya Under 15s team in February and his side were meant to tour Uganda this winter, but that is now in doubt due to the continuing power struggle at board level. As with the senior team, a lack of competitive fixtures may hold his U15s back.
As a 19 year-old Kenya’s remarkable win over the West Indies at the 1996 World Cup was a pivotal moment in his cricketing career: “We all followed the match back home. We were fans of the West Indies and loved their style of play. When we won the highlights were on TV across the country. It was huge and inspired me to play for Kenya,” he said.
Peter Ongondo celebrates taking the wicket of Michael Vaughan during the 2007 World Cup
With Kenya on the up ‘A’ teams from several test nations were visitors in the early ‘00s. Having had ODI status granted by the ICC in 1996 Kenya were able to take part in bilateral ODI series and tournaments with test nations, often at home in Nairobi, and they beat India twice in ODIs, in 1998 and 2001.
Having made his international debut in 1999 Ongondo was an ever-present during the 2003 World Cup and claimed the prized wickets of Virender Sehwag, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist during the tournament. How did he feel bowling at them and what plans did he have? “I didn’t know Sehwag but Hayden was intimidating to bowl at. I also bowled at Ponting and Sachin which was amazing; they were idols. Martin Suji and Thomas Odoyo, our most experienced medium-pacers, came up with the plans for the opposition batsmen. They did all the homework,” he said.
From the high of the 2003 World Cup things quickly deteriorated with key player Maurice Odumbe banned for match fixing in 2004, and maladministration at board level leading to a series of player strikes. These problems coincided with a paucity of fixtures as Kenya played just two ODIs (both at the 2004 Champions Trophy) between May 2003 and February 2006, losing all of the momentum that had been built up by their World Cup success.
By the time the dispute between the board and the players ended in 2005, Kenya had no sponsors and were in virtual international isolation.
Their side was also ageing with few new players of the required standard coming through. Ongondo elaborates: “In 2003 we had eight players who’d played together for more than ten years. We had a very stable team. When they retired they left together and it was very hard. We had no youth team and we lost young players to university, or they moved to Australia or the UK.”
Nairobi Gymkhana, the home of cricket in Kenya
A lack of facilities was another problem. “We had no indoor nets and no Academy. We needed to really invest in the game for youngsters to come up. Young players need to be moulded by coaches and worked on regularly. Instead they came through with a lot of mistakes, which are hard to correct when players are older,” he said. Kenyan cricket has always been centred around Nairobi, and the necessary development work did not take place in the rest of the country or in schools.
Even in Nairobi standards have declined in recent years. “All of the current national team is from Nairobi. The Nairobi league is not as strong as it was even ten years ago. Back in the ‘90s we used to have quality pros come over from India; internationals like Sandeep Patil, Chandrakant Pandit, Lalchand Rajput and Salil Ankola. Now clubs aren’t paying for pros as they don’t think it’s worth it. Some cricket’s played in Mombasa but the standard is low, it’s more social,” he said.
Some might wonder what the ICC have done to help, and there can be little doubt that the reduction from 14 to 10 teams at the 50 over World Cup from 2019 onwards will be damaging for the growth of the game worldwide. Ongondo feels that it is up to the Kenyan Board to reach out.
“The ICC takes care of a lot if they’re asked for help. Our board should ask for help as we have no real sponsors now. The board need to organise more matches outside ICC tournaments. Also if the ICC made more spots available at the World Cup and T20 World Cup, if you qualify then even if you lose when you go back home there is a lot more interest,” he said.
Having been part of Kenya’s ‘Golden Generation’ it would be easy for him to lament how things were ‘better in my day’. But he is sympathetic to the current players’ plight. “When they were growing up they were better than we were technically. I think it’s a mental thing, and also we played tougher opposition (outside ICC tournaments) in the old days. Back then we had state teams from India and South Africa which toured. Now the only good opposition Kenya plays is at ICC tournaments,” he said.
A long-standing issue at Associate level is some countries’ over-reliance on ‘expats’ from test-playing nations, to the detriment of more ‘home-grown’ sides such as Kenya. Ongondo though does not believe that the ICC should have stricter residency rules. “It’s better for us to be playing against strong teams. For these teams that rely on expats it’s not a long-term thing.
“Take Canada for example. They qualified for the 2003 World Cup, then struggled afterwards. Similarly with the UAE over the years. It’s a bit of a ‘Catch 22’: if you stick with home-grown players it can take longer to produce results, but if you rely on expats then by the time they play for you most are already in their mid thirties, and once they retire you’re back to square one.”
In recent years Kenya have been leapfrogged in the world rankings by sides such as Hong Kong
One bright spot on the bleak Kenyan cricketing horizon was their Under 19s qualifying for this year’s World Cup, the first time they had done so since 2002. Like the senior side, the U19s are split roughly 50/50 between players of African and Indian ancestry, and Ongondo said that the Indian players tend to have a head-start:
“They go to the private schools and take up the game at 11, whereas the African players take up the game when they’re around 14.” A trip to the UK as a club’s overseas player was beneficial to several Kenyan players’ development in the past, but that route has been cut off due to the ECB’s 2017 regulations which have made it significantly harder for overseas players to play here.
Ongondo feels that facilities and coaching are the key to restoring Kenya’s place in world cricket: “The main thing is we need to build academies: we only have private ones now. We need academies in Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru, and we need personnel from outside Kenya to come in and help.
“Also we need to sort out the leagues and bring back longer, multi-day cricket; the longer version of the game builds players’ techniques. At the moment all the young batsmen just want to go ‘bang bang’. With regional academies, I think it could take around four years to be successful again, if we bring through the U15s and U19s. It will take longer without.”
How does he feel seeing Kenya in the state they are currently in? “It’s painful, I felt that in the last game against Denmark by the end they weren’t trying any more. We can’t do much though, that’s the best we have. Our player base is very thin. It’s very depressing at the moment.” For Peter Ongondo’s sake and that of Kenyan cricket, one can only hope that better days lie ahead.