Associate cricket nations harbor ambitions to join the big boys

Cricket has produced some surprises of late. The most recent was the identity of the two finalists in the U-19 Asia men’s ODI Cup — Bangladesh and the UAE.

They beat India and Pakistan in the semi-finals respectively when the smart money would have been on those two triumphing. Despite being heavily defeated in the final, the UAE’s progress is both impressive and remarkable, justifying the strategy of investing in the development of local talent.

A prime example of this is Aayan Afzal Khan. Despite having only just turned 18, he has already played 46 times for the UAE and featured in the 2022 ILT20 tournament for the Gulf Giants, with whom he admits to having received rich learning. This substantial experience at such a youthful age is serving him well. In the semifinal, as captain, he contributed 55 from 57 deliveries to his team’s total of 193. He then conceded only 32 runs in his 10 overs, as the UAE triumphed by 11 runs in a nail-biting finish.

Another recent surprise occurred in the African regional qualifying tournament for the 2024 T20I World Cup in Namibia. A Test-playing nation, Zimbabwe, failed to qualify thanks to defeats at the hands of Namibia and Uganda. Both those teams progress to the World Cup, which will be co-hosted by the West Indies and the US.

Uganda’s success was unexpected outside of that country. Delve a little deeper and you’ll find its U-19 team qualified for the 2022 World Cup. Back in 2009, Uganda edged past Afghanistan in the International Cricket Council’s Division Three. Since then, Afghanistan has become a full member of the ICC, creating upsets in the 2023 ODI World Cup. Uganda has plateaued.

Although there are 54 countries in Africa, Uganda will be only the fifth African team to qualify for a T20I World Cup. South Africa and Zimbabwe are Test-playing nations, Kenya participated in the first competition in 2007, whilst Namibia qualified in 2021 and 2022.

Only four African nations have participated in ODI World Cups. Other than South Africa and Zimbabwe, only two others have qualified across 13 editions. Kenya did so four times between 1996 and 2011, famously reaching the semifinals in 2003, the same year Namibia made its only appearance. Now, there is another African country with aspirations of climbing the ladder. In the recently completed African qualifying tournament for the T20I World Cup, Nigeria finished fourth.

These aspirations are driven by the relatively new leaders of the Nigerian Cricket Federation. Its president, Uyi Akpata, who took on the role in late 2021, has decades of senior-level experience with an international accounting firm and has outlined his strategy for the development of cricket in Nigeria through a series of interviews. One profile-raising event was the two-day hosting of the ODI World Cup trophy in late August. During the visit, it was noted that the high growth rate of cricket in the country accorded it high priority by the ICC.

In terms of population, the NCF has plenty to work with. According to UN estimates, Nigeria’s population is around 224 million, making it the sixth most populated country in the world. Although there is no correlation between population and ICC rankings, half the people in Nigeria are aged under 19. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the NCF’s main strategic pillars is focused on grassroots development through reaching out to at least 250,000 youths each year. Competitions for those aged under 15, 17 and 19 have been initiated, as have reach-out programs to women.

Last week, at senior level, the Nigerian women’s team narrowly missed out in the final phase of qualification amongst African nations for the women’s 2024 T20 World Cup. Uganda and Zimbabwe achieved that distinction.

In his interviews, Akpata is keen to point out that, in the recent African qualifiers, the Nigerian team had an average age four years below that of other teams. Three players aged 17 produced stand out performances and opportunities are being explored for them to experience development camps in South Africa. Since April, the NCF has had 20 male and 20 female contracted players who earn in excess of the minimum federal wage. The high-performance coach is Steve Tikolo, known for his role in Kenya’s successes 20 years ago. At senior level there are active leagues in six provinces and there are seven turf wickets in Nigeria, more than can be claimed by several other associate members.

Another pillar of the NCF’s strategy is to ensure good governance and financial integrity, as befits Akpata’s profession. In a pitch to potential private sector investors last month, he claimed “the NCF structure is the best he has seen around.” A recent boost to its hopes is the first-time inclusion of cricket in the African Games, which will be held in Ghana in 2024. The eight highest-ranked African teams will qualify. On top of that, cricket’s presence in the 2028 Olympics means the sport is rated differently by the government when applying for funding and facilities.

These new-found ambitions for Nigerian cricket embrace a desire to be able to compete equally with Zimbabwe, Namibia and Uganda. Creating appropriate pathways to attract and develop young players has been a major step forward. Coupled with top coaches, sustainable partnerships with sponsors and other stakeholders, quality playing facilities and infrastructure, the foundations to support these goals have been laid.

Cricket was introduced to Nigeria in the 19th century by British colonial administrators. Its appeal lasted until around 1970, after which football become a national obsession. Membership of the West African Cricket Federation (later Council) was held from 1960, until ICC Associate status was gained in 2002 and the subregional body was dissolved. The current resurgence of cricket shows what can be done with an appropriate strategy, a young population, determined leadership, funding and foresight. Nigeria is preparing itself to create its own surprises in cricket.

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