Uganda’s rise and an alternative slice of African cricket | Cricket

Name a non-Test playing country from Africa which has recently won a continental T20 trophy. Kenya? Namibia? Wrong. Less than 50kms away from Centurion, where India will play their first Test against South Africa, an alternative slice of African cricket strutted its stuff a fortnight ago.

Uganda players celebrate their win over Zimbabwe(ICC)

It is Uganda who are the continental champs and on their most fun run in history. In November, they qualified for the 2024 ICC T20 World Cup en route shocking both Zimbabwe and Kenya. Then they defended their Africa Cricket Association (ACA) Africa Cup T20 2023 title. The Africa Cup T20 featured Uganda and Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leona who make up the second rung of African cricket after the southern Africa stalwarts like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia.

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The ACA is made up of 23 countries, also including Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Mauritius, Mali, Cameroon and Gambia, with ACA CEO Cassim Suliman saying six more – including Ivory Coast and Burkina Fasso – are seeking entry. “There is a lot of potential, a lot of talent in African cricket…” Suliman says, “going forward we want to produce African players for the IPL.” By which he means Africans from previously-unregarded territories.

Like headline makers Uganda. Uganda was part of the 1975 East Africa team in the first-ever men’s cricket World Cup, its independent emergence in recent years due to several factors: the ICC’s decision to give T20 matches between all members the status of T20Internationals, Uganda Cricket’s sustained programme and the ICC’s re-jigged three-year residency rule (as against five) allowing expats to represent Associate nations.

Martin Ondeko played many roles in Uganda Cricket Association (UCA) from 2009 to June 2022: coach, umpire, operations manager, and then CEO. Uganda’s route to the ICC T20 World Cup, he says “started years back… during the Covid period we had a lot of thinking to do, now that all the cricket is international, what do we do to build to that level.”

The big step forward came with UCA hiring Lawrence Mahatlane from South Africa in November 2020 to succeed Kenyan legend Steve Tikolo. Mahatlane brought an element of professionalisation into the team, building a support team of strength % conditioning coach, physio and psychologist. The UCA then ensured the team played competitive matches, against stronger teams, away from home – like Namibia and Kenya.

In the last four years since international status, no other African associate nation has played (87) or won more (66) T20I matches than Uganda. The introduction of a central contracts system from February 2021 – three grades, says Ondeko, between UGX (Ugandan Shillings) 1.8m, UGX1.5m, UGX1.2m between US$500 and US$300, plus paying for the players’ transport, lunch and medical expenses led to a degree of financial stability in the system. Mahatlane’s contract was not renewed with new coach Jackson Ogwang taking over from Nov 1.

Qualification for the ICC T20 World Cup 2024 is only the second time Uganda has qualified for a seniors’ world championship in any sport, with netball being the . Ondeko, who participated in the 2004 u19 World Cup, is currently with Batball Uganda focussing on grassroots cricketers, and since a year of operation, have identified 300 young players.

The importance of indigenous Africans in cricket – as opposed to South Asian or South African expats – is a fundamental issue in the ACA. Suliman says, “It is an important for Africa to have indigenous Africans playing the game from a young age where they will grow into playng senior cricket and also for their coutnry in time to come.”

While he says “most” ACA members have indigenous players in their ranks, the percentages are mixed. Some splits are 75-25 (indigenous players as against expats), some, like Botswana and Malawi have a 60-40 mix. Uganda have five South Asians (three Indians and two Pakistanis) among their 20 centrally contracted players. Malawi is captained by a Pakistani, Rwanda field two expats in an eleven, Sierra Leone and Ghana have a 90-10 split while Mozambique field all indigenous players.

Focussing fully on indigenous players is a harder path to follow over signing-on expats, who bring faster success, notice, sponsorship and funding. It means working actively in schools, Suliman saying, “Most of the countries are looking at the u13s u15s u17s which are totally indigenous.”

UCA media manager Denis Musali says Uganda 1000 primary and 120 high schools playing – on matting – with the Annual Schools Cricket Week being the event that throws up the best junior talent on offer. Moving the game out of Kampala and encouraging cricket organising committees in towns like Jinja, Gulu, Soroto and Fortportal City.

The shrinking of Zimbabwe and Kenya from the world stage is an alarm bell about the governance standards required to run cricket in countries where it is not the main sport. Suliman says, “It is the No.1 priority – everything has to be accountable and accounted for.” The ACA he says runs courses for their members in cricket administration, finance, and CAP courses for professionalisation of management, succession planning. “We give them the tools to ensure they follow the requirements otherwise they can get into problems, lose affiliation.”

Uganda will be the 2024 T20 World Cup’s fairy tale. Except cricket out of Africa – and everywhere else in the world – needs less fairy tales and more real-life best-practice examples of emerging teams that stay strong and competitive.

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