Where will Nigerian cricket be 10 years from now?
Will the recent continental victory in the U-19 category lead to the renaissance of a sport that was once as popular as football in the country?
These are some of the questions officials of the Nigerian Cricket Federation (NCF) are trying to proffer positive answers to.
Last week in Potchefstroom, South Africa, the junior national team, also known as the Junior Yellow Greens, defeated Sierra Leone to become champions of the ICC U-19 World Cup Africa Division Two qualifying tournament, which gained the country promotion to Division One and an ICC Junior World Cup slot.
For a sport that had never done anything substantial in international cricket since the former board, led by Kwesi Sagoe, took the country to the ICC World Cricket League Division Six, the feat in South Africa is seen as the push Nigeria needs to rejoin the elite class of African cricket.
Now, there is a new found fervor in cricket enthusiasts who have urged the NCF to ensure the African champions are nurtured as the base of a virile national team.
The federation has also been urged to ensure that the formula, which led to the success is maintained in subsequent competitions.
This is because the victory has been explained as the result of hard work, which started right from the assemblage of the boys to the day they departed for South Africa.
Prior to the championship, the team was camped for over two months in Benin City and Kaduna, where the initial 40 players were pruned to 27 and then finally to 14.
They had a four-match tour of Uganda where they engaged the country’s U-19 and the U-23 national teams before heading for the event.
In a chat with journalists shortly after the competition, NCF President, Professor Yahaya Ukwenya acknowledged, “the victory was not a walk in the park. We worked for it. The win in South Africa is both a reward and a call for more work.”
He revealed that most of the players were recruited from pockets of private teams and leagues that dots different cricket clusters around the country.
“We knew that getting the nation back to the heights it deserved will need us getting everyone to support whatever the NCF was doing at the center.
Despite the sinking state of Nigerian cricket’s global reputation, there were still deep-seated interests in the game.
What we lacked was the leadership to seize the initiative, bring together all interests and more than anything else, develop and execute a workable roadmap to a desirable future for this game.”
In less than six months after assuming leadership, Ukwenya and his team has cracked up a document that spelt the Federation’s immediate needs and how to approach them, including engaging consultants, past players and keeping a focused youth programme in place.
But there were still problems to surmount. According to Ukwenya, “Getting funding became one of the key factors here, so we decided to engage all means possible, including taking deliberate actions to keep the sport marketable and attractive to corporate bodies and of course having in mind deliverables that would keep such relationships a win-win affair for everybody.”
A major impetus to the rebuilding of Nigerian cricket, according to Ukwenya, was the decision in April to bid and win the rights to two continental events, including the ICC T-20 World Cup Qualifier and the Africa Cricket Association (ACA) running consecutively at the now revamped Tafawa Balewa Square Cricket Oval in Lagos.
NCF Vice President, Uyi Akpata, who has championed some of the developmental programmes, agrees that hosting the international events in April served a number of purposes, including allowing the federation to deepen its international affiliations with the global and continental bodies and also help to upgrade one of the prime facilities in the country to international standard and again put the players on the spot.
“I believe that after the events in April, we gained many things, the most important being a rise in our rating,” he said.
He points at the two events in which Nigeria finished second behind Ghana, the coaching programmes that exposed indigenous coaches to the latest trends in cricket, as well as the decision to recruit a South African cricket legend, Makhaya Ntini, as technical assistant to the national team, as steps that have been helpful to Nigerian cricket.
Akpata explains: “Nigerian Cricket took the leap after the two events we hosted in April.
Most of the discipline and depth that the present U-19 team have was a result of so many lessons we have learnt while executing our planned programmes as a federation.”
He reveals that the NCF has been investing in high performance development in terms of coach education, umpires and scorers’ development, saying it informed the federation’s decision to send six officials (coaches and umpires) to South Africa for advance education courses.
“Three Nigerian umpires were also part of officials for the just concluded tournament.
Enesi Dahiru, who is also on the NCF Board as the technical representative, Kehinde Olanbiwonu, who was the only Nigerian at the April West Africa T20 World Cup Qualifier, and Musa Ehizoje, also a member of the Umpires’ Association, joined elite African umpires at this event.
This is the highest number of umpires from Nigeria at any ICC event.”
Aside the commitment displayed by NCF board members, the sport is reaping from the support it enjoys from Lagos State Government, Transport Services Limited, Eroton Exploration and Production, as well as Visionscape.
Hence when the opening whistle for the final match between Nigeria and Sierra Leone was blown in Potchefstroom on Tuesday, the Junior Yellow Green knew that beyond the preparations they went through, they held the hope of a new dawn for the game back home.
According to the team’s captain, Sylvester Okpe, before the match “we put every victory so far behind us.
In fact we told ourselves we would celebrate only after victory in the final match, because that is the only thing that mattered.”
Narrating his experience in South Africa, Coach Uthe Ogbimi explains that the players’ determination and the exposure they had from the long training schedule put in place by the federation, as well as the depth of the technical team paid off at the championship.
Former national team captain, Endurance Ufem, who is also one of the player’s representatives on the board, says of the team:
“They were majestic. I followed the match online as I could not be there live.
When the statistics came reeling in, I could picture the torture that was in our opponent’s mind.
Our opening batsman (Elijah Olaleye) was ‘savage’. He killed the game before the opponents were ready,” he enthused.
In deed in the final game, Olaleye led with an unbeaten 110 off 124 balls.
Samuel Mba shared a first wicket stand of 148 runs before departing in the 35th over on 62 off 124 balls; which set the tone for the 242 runs for the loss of nine wickets in allotted 50 overs.
Then came Nigeria’s best bowler at the tournament, Peter Aho.
He led the onslaught by claiming five wickets, 35 runs, one maiden in four overs, while the duo of Mohammed Taiwo and Abdulrahman Jimoh claimed two wickets apiece to reduce their opponents to a paltry 105 runs all out in 31 overs.