Perhaps now Toch can play for Nigeria

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FIVE months ago on this column I introduced you to Tochukwu Emwerem, the gifted Bulawayo-born cricket player, whose strong Nigerian roots did not deter him from playing three Youth ODIs for Zimbabwe Under-19s and a couple of Matabeleland Tuskers B games.

By Enock Muchinjo

I got nudged to write after Nigeria’s Under-19 cricket time arrived in Zimbabwe to prepare for the Youth World Cup qualification competition in Namibia, at which they made many — myself included — eat humble pie by qualifying for the tournament next year in South Africa.

This is what I wrote five months ago:

“Born and bred in Bulawayo into a proud Nigerian immigrant family, Toch — as his mates call him — initially showed his prodigious talents at Falcon College, where coaches and onlookers alike spoke of him as a certain future Zimbabwe international.

But while it is really not something out of the ordinary that a Zimbabwean cricketer can be a locally-born son of Nigerians— raised in a city with a proud cricketing heritage and schooled at the eminent Falcon College — you would think that this would be as far as any cricketing relations between these two countries can get.
Now, a Nigeria Under-19 national team coming to play against Zimbabwe — as is currently happening — would have been a most unthinkable thing in the history of Zimbabwean cricket even as the West Africans were flying here for the one-week tour.

You just could not make it up.

Zimbabwe are using the matches as part of preparations for next year’s Under-19 World Cup, to which they automatically qualify by virtue of being a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC). As for the Nigerians, they are en route to Namibia for a qualification competition in Africa Division One later this month, in pursuit of an elusive ticket to that Under-19 World Cup. Few expect them to qualify.

There has not been any meaningful cricket to talk about in Nigeria since the game was first introduced there many decades ago.

But the ICC says it is using hugely populated countries like Nigeria as one of the target zones in the world to grow the game.

These are all plausible efforts and for Zimbabwe, there is, of course, the moral obligation to offer a helping hand to an African brother who needs it. It is a nice gesture by ZC, to reach out, and Zimbabwe should feel a sense of responsibility towards the emerging African cricketing nations.

We have been shown the way too, sailing in waves of a huge sea of goodwill from different people and different places. But spare a thought for the long-suffering Zimbabwean cricket supporters. Do not lynch them for having a bad feeling about now having to play cricket against teams from Nigeria.

They have been here before — seeing the signs, the steady decline and all of a sudden the waterloo. It happens in stages: overtaken by Bangladesh, overtaken by Afghanistan and denied a place in the World Cup by United Arab Emirates. And then while you are still wondering if that is what is has come to — reduced to playing against Nigeria — you wake up to more distressing news that strife-torn Afghanistan are calling off a tour because their hosts, Zimbabwe, are too broke to afford sharing the broadcasting costs. As if to rub it in, this just has to happen in the World Cup year, where Zimbabwe will be conspicuously absent for the first time in 36 years.”

Now, the late replacement of Zimbabwe by Nigeria for the upcoming ICC men’s World T20 qualifier slated to be held in October in the UAE is definitely a bitter pill to swallow, but like the headline of my piece in March suggested, “this is what is has come to”.

While some will curse the boardroom action that had been taken against the Zimbabwean cricket administration for what has culminated in this sad development — being excluded from the T20 qualifiers — it is fair to say that at some point, with the unending leadership crisis in the game in this country, such a dire eventuality was inevitable.

Meanwhile, while Zimbabwe has been on a self-inflicted downward spiral, other nations, and yes Nigeria included, have been on a massive drive to transform themselves in this game. Nigerian journalist Christian Okpara wrote in February:

“The horizon now looks bright. In fact, followers of the game believe that country has rediscovered the route to accelerated development of the game. They cite the NCF’s recent activities involving the future stars of the game. The NCF began the year by gathering more than 250 children in Nigeria’s most hallowed Cricket ground, the Tafawa Balewa Cricket Oval in Lagos, and distributed sets of modified cricket equipment to be taken back to their schools to practice their new-found sport.

“The event marked the second phase of NCF/PWC Naija Kids Cricket, a project that the NCF board, led by a surgeon at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Professor Yahaya Adam Ukwenya, has put together to rejuvenate grassroot cricket development across the country. On hand to distribute the plastic wicket, balls and bats was the NCF Vice President, Uyi Akpata, who disclosed that more than 16 states had been served with equipment already during the first phase of the exercise.”

In sharp contrast, the developmental structures of cricket in Zimbabwe, the lifeline of the game for over a century in the country, have suffered heavily from years of neglect to become almost non-existent.

Emwerem, a cricketer so good they said he was a future Zimbabwe cricketer, has long stopped playing the game at the age of 27 due to the disillusionment in the country of his birth. He might, perhaps, retrace his roots to the land of his forefathers to realise his cricketing dreams.

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