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African cricket ambassador

Enock Muchinjo

IT is always nice to know that Steve Tikolo is in town, for he is a fine gentleman of the game — greatly admired in this country as much as he is in the rest of the cricketing world.

Tikolo is Kenya’s greatest cricketer of all time, a man who carried his national team on his shoulders almost single-handedly for over a decade, the Andy Flower of Kenyan cricket if you like.

The Kenyan legend has be described by many followers of the game as one of the best players never to play Test cricket, a view that others do not subscribe to on the basis of statistics, rather than the man’s undisputable talents on the field.

But to be held in such esteem by quite a significant fan base of the game — as one of those unlucky not to experience the pinnacle format of the sport because of the country he comes from — says a lot about the quality of this man and what he possibly would have achieved had he been born in a different country.

One of the traits of a good player in any sport is being able to individually perform consistently within a team of minnows, to defy your group circumstances and to skilfully rally your teammates around you for the greater good of the side.

Because he was able to do that, Tikolo earned the respect of the cricketing world and his name is synonymous with the game in his country.

Tikolo-inspired Kenya’s shock win over West Indies in the 1996 World Cup, where the East Africans took part for the first time as a standalone nation, probably signalled what this country could do in this game especially when their talisman was inspired.

The Kenya kingpin would emerge from that World Cup with two half-centuries, one nearly a ton, all against quality bowling attacks.Then under Tikolo’s captaincy, Kenya’s finest hour came in 2003 at the World Cup, surprising the sporting world by reaching the semi-finals in a fairytale run that remains the best ever performance by a non-Test nation.

Among their casualties in that World Cup was Heath Streak-captained Zimbabwe, with all its big guns — Andy Flower, Alistair Campbell, Henry Olonga, Andy Blignaut—crumbling to a Super Six seven-wicket defeat in Bloemfontein as the East Africans swept into the semis in style.

All in all, Tikolo played in five World Cups, the same number as his Kenya teammate and another long-time stalwart of the team, Thomas Odoyo.
It is no mean feat to hang around for that long, in any sport.

Just take a close look at the names of the other cricketers to have gone to five World Cups and you will fully appreciate the illustrious company the two Kenyans find themselves in: Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Aravinda de Silva, Wasim Akram, Sachin Tendulkar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Sanath Jayasuriya, Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Jacques Kallis, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ricky Ponting, Mahela Jayawardene, Shahid Afridi — all absolute legends of the game.
Fittingly, Tikolo’s last World Cup match was against Zimbabwe in 2011 in a 161-run defeat for the Kenyans. When Tikolo walked out for the last time in the World Cup, the Zimbabwean team sportingly gathered around the Kenya great to bid him farewell while the small crowd inside India’s Eden Gardens, one of the most famous stadiums in the sporting world, gave him a standing ovation.

At the beginning of a brief period of rejuvenation in Zimbabwean cricket between 2010 and 2013 when quite a few foreign professionals were hired to play and coach here, Tikolo arrived to play domestic cricket for Masvingo-based Southern Rocks, were he proved to be a massive asset in the changing room with his bags of experience in international cricket.

In cricket, you learn something every day. You cannot then be left none the wiser after spending a whole season around a top-notch professional like Steve Tikolo. For Zimbabwe players like Sikandar Raza, Craig Ervine, Chamu Chibhabha and Tendai Chisoro — who were in the South Rocks set-up during that time — the lessons should last a career.

Zimbabwe holds a special place in Tikolo’s heart and when an opportunity to visit came this week, he must have been delighted at the prospect of seeing old friends as well as ex-teammates and opponents alike. Tikolo is now the head coach of Uganda’s nation team, who landed in Harare last Sunday in another show of strengthened ties with Takashinga Cricket Club — where they are playing four limited over games during a week-long tour.

An African cricket icon like Tikolo is an important figure for the game on this continent, for its growth and future. Tikolo is living proof that black Africans — just like the English, Australians, Indians or West Indians — can play cricket competently at the highest level and earn the respect of the world.
It is a real pity Kenyan cricket has disintegrated into a mess these days, but it is heartening to see Tikolo helping out his country’s Eastern African neighbours, and the results of his efforts showing.

Despite a Twenty20 loss to Old Hararians on Tuesday and a 50-over defeat to the host club the next day, it was quite uplifting to witness the Ugandans getting the fundamentals correctly and looking like a unit that definitely has a clue about this game.

Today, the Ugandans take on Zimbabwe’s Under-19 side before winding up the tour with another match against Takashinga tomorrow.While results are a secondary concern, it is a tremendously important thing that the Ugandan team continue to show ability to play under the able tutelage of Tikolo.

In the big picture, it is not just the likes of Uganda who have the very important responsibility of changing official attitude. Other nations in Africa should also be making strides to nudge the powers-that-be to let cricket shed its elitist mentality.

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