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What our cricket team says of us

On Thursday 20th March 2003, Kenya’s cricket team was doing a lap of honour having just lost a match in South Africa. Why? Because our cricketers had just been beaten by India in the semi-final of cricket’s World Cup. The crowd – South Africans, Indians, Kenyans – was on its feet applauding. And those of us watching on TV were finding it difficult to suppress the sheer elation we felt at seeing our boys in green mixing it with the best in the world.

Let it be understood: Kenya’s performance in this World Cup was truly outstanding. For a team regarded as a ‘minnow’ to get to the semi-finals of cricket’s most prestigious tournament was unprecedented in the history of the game. It was the main talking point of the tourney, the highlight of the four weeks of cricketing competition. Our team played with verve, flair and commitment.

As the dust settles, however, it’s time to take stock. I have followed the progress of our team for decades, and have felt the extremes of joy and despair in doing so. When I look upon the team today, at a time of great change in the country, it seems to me that our cricket team in many ways is the country: a microcosm of our national character. The team exhibits the same traits and qualities that our country does, both positive and negative. It would be instructive to take a hard look at ourselves through the lens of the cricket team.

Let’s begin with an undeniable fact: we are world-beaters. Our cricket team confirms it; we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the world. We have nothing to fear, no reason to hesitate. We are a country of immense talent and enterprise, and can confidently set our sights high as we seek our place in the world.

A second national character trait: we are truly ‘unbwogable’! Consider this: we were playing against teams with huge training budgets, the best facilities, legendary players and decades of valuable experience behind them. We ourselves were a ragtag team, barely able to afford a decent kit, lacking a major sponsor, with no government support or interest backing us. And we finished in the top four in the world. In doing so, we finished above England (who once ruled us and would claim to have invented the game); the West Indies (who dominated the game for two decades); South Africa (the hosts and pre-tournament second favourites) and Pakistan (former cup-holders and finalists at the previous tournament).

This ‘unbwogability’ is apparent in us as a nation. Over the past two decades, we have been through ordeals that would have vanquished a lesser people. We have seen our coffers looted, our institutions destroyed, our infrastructure ruined. We have lived through self-created famines and crippling droughts. We have weathered economic storms in which our currency plummeted and our interest rates headed moonward. But we’re still here! It is a mark of our determination and enterprise that we are still standing, still able to compete, still unbowed and unbeaten. This resilience is indeed a defining feature of Kenyans.

What else does our cricket team reveal? That we can use our diversity to great advantage. Our team of Christians, Hindus, Jains and Muslims, of Luos, Kikuyus and Wahindi, of salesmen and schoolboys, is a great testament to our multi-faceted identity as a nation. It is this very diversity that gives us so many qualities and strengths. It is something we must cherish and protect.

The good news, however, stops there. If this is to be an honest look at our team and nation, then we must address the weaknesses and negative traits too. So what do we see in our cricket team to worry us?

Firstly, we get easily carried away. One swallow, said Aesop, does not a summer make. Yet if you listen to our team and public, you would think we’d already won the World Cup. You would imagine that we have already arrived at the high table of cricketing nations. A dose of realism is needed: we got to the semi-finals with a hefty injection of luck. Our games against Australia and India, the top dogs of world cricket, exposed our shortcomings very sharply. Their top batsmen despatched our balls into the Durban sky, out of the ground and seemingly out of the planet, with cruel ease; we would do well to note this experience and learn from it, not brush over it.

This tendency towards premature euphoria is evident in our national character. The arrival of the Narc government seemed to send us all into paroxysms of rapture. It was as though the tribulations of two traumatic decades had been erased at a stroke. We seem to find it so easy to forget that a new start is precisely that: a start. That the hard work still lies ahead, that sacrifices still have to be made. Now, when our leaders realise that unity cannot be taken for granted, and workers realise that salary increments cannot be conjured up from nothing (unless you’re a member of parliament, of course), reality is seeping back into our discourse.

Another disquieting trait: we’re fixated on money. In all the interviews that the international media conducted with our players and administrators, one message kept coming through: we need more money. We’re not paid enough, we don’t get enough of the cake, we demand more. This message is echoed in our newspapers every day, by all and sundry. Every Kenyan, including CEOs, seems to think his or her salary must be doubled immediately.

It is an unhealthy obsession. Where has it come from? The finger must be pointed at our leaders. Our MPs have shown that self-gain is Priority Number One in nation building. What example are they setting the nation? To get your grubby claws on the money first, before anyone else does. It is no surprise that the average cricketer, or the average Kenyan, tries to follow suit. This unwholesome selfishness will always impede our progress.

Finally, both as cricketers and Kenyans, we keep looking to others to solve our problems. I don’t know how many times I heard or read it during the World Cup: the International Cricket Council (ICC) must assist us. We need grants, we need external help. The letters ‘ICC’ can be added to a long list of supposed benefactors that we continually badger for handouts as a country: IMF, WB, DFID, USAID, JICA et al.

What is true of cricket is true of the country: we are limiting ourselves by continually looking outward. No team or country has ever become great by begging. We have all the answers to our problems within our borders, within ourselves. But we focus only on the quick fix: a grant here, a soft loan there. If Australia and India are the premier cricketing nations today, it is not because of the ICC. If China, Korea and Hong Kong are major economic powers today, it is not because of the World Bank or the IMF.

Long-term success can only come from within.

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