Nigeria’s cricketing Eagles take flight

The loud, proud West African giant is going to the Under-19 Cricket World Cup for the first time. How did this happen and what does it mean for the sport in this populous country?

Nigeria are going to the World Cup. Believe it, Oga! No, not the football World Cup. That wouldn’t surprise a soul, given their rich history in the most popular sport in the world.

The throbbing, unapologetically loud and proud West African giant is taking its first meaningful steps into the game of cricket, with a dramatic qualification to the 2020 Under-19 World Cup to be played in South Africa.

They took a torturous final stretch to get there, barely hanging on to register the most important victory of their young lives. Two wickets was all that stood between them and despair, as Sierra Leone took them to the very edge of their nerves.

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When Man of the Match Peter Aho, still just 16 years young, smeared the winning run past square leg, the green and gold bench could not contain itself. They tore on to the field as if they had won the World Cup itself. In a sense they had, because this is uncharted territory.

“We had a 10-year plan to get to the World Cup,” says the ecstatic Nigeria Cricket Federation president, Professor Adam Yahaya Ukwenya.

Far from being on African time, they jumped the gun by nine years. Ukwenya, affectionately known as “Prof”, might be the most invested administrator in the game. It’s not overbearing though. This has been his vision since he was a young student fascinated by the game of the colonialists and challenged by its insistence on structure and technique.

“We have been playing cricket in Nigeria since 1905. It was brought over by the English, but it has always been behind football (of course), basketball, boxing and athletics,” he explains.

Prof’s love for cricket

When Ukwenya starts speaking about the game he can wax lyrical for hours, exuding a deep-seated understanding and unquenchable thirst for further knowledge. In addition to all his academic qualifications, the game has become his most enduring thesis. And so this moment, this utterly delicious surprise, matters to him more than anyone else.

“This is enormous. It is incredible.”

He stops for a moment, his bottom lip quivering in anticipation of what comes next.

“This World Cup qualification will encourage parents to let their kids play cricket. These boys, this team, they are role models in their states now.”

He veers off slightly to tell the story of how one of the squad member’s fathers called him to thank him.

“It was a special call. He said they had been worried about what their son would do with his life, but to see his name among those representing Nigeria had filled the entire family with pride. Their son was something,” he beams.

No haystack, yet

But back to the wider narrative and the beautiful pinch this landmark victory will give the Nigerian people.

“It will challenge the sport federation to do more for the game and encourage corporates to go to their pockets and fund these young boys’ dreams.”

Nigeria has never shirked at a sporting challenge and Ukwenya took it upon himself to try and unlock the potential of a nation with more than a quarter of a billion people.

“To be a Nigerian footballer, to play for the Super Eagles, you have to be unbelievably talented. And lucky. There is just so, so much talent. Many great players go unnoticed, because it is a needle in a haystack. In cricket, we don’t have a haystack. Yet. So there are opportunities to wear the national colours,” he says with a knowing smile.

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It is not surprising that Prof is so utterly besotted with the game. In his professional life, he is a professor in gastrointestinal surgery. It is a craft that requires discipline, dedication and an unflinching eye for detail.

These are hallmarks that are easily transferable to cricket. To truly understand how deeply rooted he is in the health of Nigerian cricket, it is best to look back to where Ukwenya’s cricket journey started.

A native of Kogi State – which is the point where Nigeria’s two largest rivers, the Niger and the Benue, meet – Ukwenya is a man of humble background but significant ambition.

“I went to King’s College in Lagos. It was steeped in English tradition. When you got there, you learnt the game of cricket,” he reminisces.

Going for the jugular

He was a budding fast bowler and, once he realised that his pace was an issue for those standing 22 yards away, he relished the prospect of matches.

“I then encountered a problem. You see, as a bowler, you have to depend on fielders to help you get wickets. I was having a lot of catches dropped off my bowling, which was disheartening.”

He decided that the easiest way to circumvent that shortcoming was to erase the fielder from the equation. Go for the jugular, as it were.

“I started practising my yorker, making sure it was deadly. If you hit the stumps or the batsmen’s feet, you didn’t have to worry about the catches,” he says.

That same toe-crushing yorker has become part of the arsenal of the bowler who spearheads this Under-19 side, Mohameed Taiwo. The lithe left-armer is still learning to swing it, but Prof has got him into the habit of delivering the yorker under pressure. It worked a treat against Uganda, as Nigeria won a match they could easily have lost and, with it, their World Cup dream.

“I saw Taiwo at trials, but he was not among those considered for the state team. I just saw something there, because he was a left-arm bowler with pace. That is not something we have a lot of in the game,” he points out.

And so, he took Taiwo under his wing, reminding him that hitting the stumps eradicates the need for fielders.

Five ducks to hero

Heartwarming personal tales abound in the Nigerian squad. Like the one about Samuel Mba, the determined young middle-order man who would have been ignored if selection was based on stats alone.

“You know, he scored five ducks in the trials. But he had this determination. You could see there was something there,” Ukwenya recalls.

He invited Mba, along with several other players of promise, to boot camps in Kaduna. Unfailingly, Mba was always the first through the door, desperate to work on his game. When Ukwenya called him in to tell him he was going to this qualifying tournament, the young man broke down in tears – and then expressed his thanks in the best possible way.

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After Nigeria had upset the favourites, Namibia, on the opening day, Uganda were their biggest hurdle on paper. When they reduced Nigeria to a parlous 12 for four, it was Mba, previously of the ducks, who stood up. His 54 allowed Nigeria to climb to 110, a total they were then able to defend.

So the boot camp did its job, then. Mba, quiet in demeanour, was mobbed by his mates as he came from the crease.

The spirit Nigeria exudes has been crucial in their dash to the promised land. They are a band of brothers, making memories their country has never made before.

“Cricket has been fantastic for these boys. You make your best friends at this age. They have travelled across Africa, they have seen places and people they never would have, unless they played football for the national sides, maybe,” says Ukwenya.

From garden to world stage

Prof has an even more personal connection to another of the players in the side. Skipper Sylvester Okpe literally learnt how to play the game in the professor’s back garden. Okpe was friends with Ukwenya’s son and there was a family ritual of playing cricket in the garden on Sundays.

The professor would sit under the tree, passing on tips, and then eventually get up from the chair and become more hands-on.

“I missed the game. After King’s College, I had to come to Kaduna for medical school. I tried to get back to playing it and then passing it on to the next generation,” he explains.

A qualification in surgery meant his time was limited. Raising a family, he could only pass on what he knew about the game. His playing days were gone. Okpe was so small that the bats they were using were too heavy for him to play the proper shots. But exuberance always finds a way. Okpe and his off spin are now a cornerstone of the Nigerian success story.

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“He’s like a son to me, if I’m honest. You only have to tell him something once and you know he’s got it.”

To see Okpe grow from a little eight-year-old into a leader has been a source of great pride for Prof. There are four boys who have graduated from the makeshift clinic that turned into the cricket club he started.

Those four are now international age-group cricketers. They have helped reshape the narrative that excellence only comes from Nigeria’s two giant cities, Lagos and Abuja.

“These boys come from across the country. Only Taiwo is from Lagos. And there are two from Abuja. They are encouraging Nigeria to look at the country as a whole when they search for talent.”

23 March 2019: Nigeria’s qualification for the Under-19 World Cup in Windhoek came nine years earlier than planned, in the first year of a supposed 10-year project. (Photograph by International Cricket Council)

Beating political interference

Being in Africa, Ukwenya’s reign at the top of Nigerian cricket is not immune to political interference.

“Governance is always an issue in Africa,” Ukwenya says simply. “The thing about a result like this is that it allows you to have a stronger voice when you ask for help from the sport federation. The results speak for themselves. They can see that cricket is flourishing.”

Politics and sport are always awkward bedfellows, but Ukwenya hopes that this achievement will buy him the time and favour he needs to build towards the World Cup. The success of this qualifying tournament wasn’t by chance. They have been planning for this since last year. He took the team to Uganda, who were ahead of them in development.

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“We suffered in Uganda. They beat us 4-1 in the series and the boys were crying. But that trip hardened them,” he maintains.

There were concerns at home and even suggestions that they drop out of the first qualifying tournament, held in Potchefstroom last year.

“I knew the boys were ready. When someone cries, it means they care enough to not want to lose. We hadn’t gone to Uganda to beat Uganda. We had gone to learn,” he points out.

He did the same for this final qualifying tournament. Ahead of the Namibia stop, he took his squad to Zimbabwe for 10 gruelling days.

“We owe a great debt to Zimbabwe. They helped us prepare for this tournament. Again, we went to learn, rather than to win. A big weakness of Nigerian cricket is playing spin, because we don’t play on tracks that spin back home,” he laments.

The gospel of spin

Along with building a team of which the entire country can be proud, Ukwenya’s other big goal is to make turf wickets a norm in Nigeria.

“It is vital for our development. We can handle pace because we have been raised on Astroturf wickets. But we need to encourage our spinners with proper tracks,” he says.

Zimbabwe hardened the Nigerian team by playing a full-strength side and providing a surfeit of spin bowling. You can only improve under those conditions. But it is not just Zimbabwe that has helped Nigerian cricket. Ukwenya points to the hospitality of Uganda a year ago and also their generosity of spirit in Nigeria’s hour of need.

As Nigeria tried to eat away at the target that would determine their fate, Uganda came from their victory over Tanzania to cheer on the men in green. They didn’t have to, given the tense battle they had fought just two days before.

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“That is the beauty of this game,” Prof says. “An opponent is an opponent on the field. Beyond that, there are friendships formed. The Ugandan captain is always in the boys’ rooms, because they have developed a kinship.”

As Nigeria edged towards 140, the atmosphere got worse by the minute. Management could hardly bear to watch and players who had already been dismissed sunk into silent, urgent prayer. Ukwenya sat back and watched the fruits of his labour.

He might easily have been back in Kaduna, sitting under his tree in the back garden, throwing out a few observations to the youngsters crafting their budding skills. They’ve come a long way from that garden. So far, in fact, that they’ve put the Nigerian flag on the cricketing map.

But it wasn’t easy. Not on the final day.

Dramatic qualification

On odysseys to the unknown, it is often the final few steps that are most uncertain. History is littered with legends of boats that sailed from Europe to the tip of Africa, only to be cast onto the rocks with the promised land in sight.

Nigeria had their ship-on-a-rock moment when they lost two wickets in as many balls, and what they had done to Uganda on the very same ground threatened to happen to them and their dreams. Tasked with 140 precious runs for victory and the chance to barge through a seemingly impregnable door, Nigeria had to search deep within.

They had to remember what had brought them to this watershed moment, this field of dreams deemed too green for Nigeria. To add to the swelling drama, the clouds gathered above, pregnant with miserable intent. That would complicate matters, with Nigeria behind on the complex Duckworth/Lewis/Stern rate.

In African culture, rain is usually a blessing. A sign of the gods embracing you. In Windhoek, however, the arrival of rain would have been the kiss of death for Nigeria. There were nervous glances to the heavens as the clouds rumbled, but the final excruciating steps crept on in the middle.

Ukwenya and his lieutenants watched helplessly as the chase unravelled. Every single one of those 140 runs felt like a minor victory.

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Head coach Clive Ogbimi Uthe retired to the silence and solace of the dressing room. The drama was too much. His manager held his hand, mouth agape, wondering if they had come all this glorious way only to crumble at the last. It was torture.

The pitch was playing lower and lower, and Sierra Leone were getting louder and louder, well aware of their role as devil’s advocate. The Nigerians had always known that spin was their Achilles heel, because of the tracks at home. Here they were now, threatening to be spun into a frenzy and out into the cold.

Namibia, done and dusted, stole a glance, sensing a fragility in the hitherto mean, green machine.

Prof might have wished he was a strapping lad of 18 again, taking the pressure out in the middle onto his massive shoulders. After all, can there ever be more pressure than that of being a surgeon, a man who literally makes his living keeping people alive?

One wrong move, one false stroke and the whole thing unravels.

“There are similarities between cricket and surgery. They both have technical and non-technical skills. There is a way to operate, proven over decades and decades. If you follow the script, you will get the necessary result.

“The same applies in cricket. If you play a forward defensive to a good ball, you are likely to find the middle of the bat.”

It’s the non-technical skills, he points out, that elevate people from efficient to excellent.

Desire to succeed.
The ability to handle pressure.

‘Keep it simple’

“Those come into play when we are placed under pressure. We have pressures in our everyday lives. For a cricketer, it might be a false stroke, like trying to cut a ball that is too close to the body.”

For a surgeon, he adds, it might be cutting against the grain and using a different technique.

“Instinct can still get you the desired result, but under extreme pressure that unorthodox approach might crack. So I’m always reminding the boys to keep it simple. Don’t try and do too much. Embrace the pressure, then find a way to overcome it.”

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Fittingly, Nigeria found a way to overcome that pressure. Their aha moment came from the blade of Aho. The rest of the squad tore on to the pitch in delirious joy. There, in the middle of Affies Park, some dropped to their knees and gave praise and thanks. Others cried.

But these were not the tears they cried in Uganda after some tough lessons. These were happy, euphoric tears, soaking in the realisation that they had taken their country to a World Cup.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. Not this soon. Not this way.

They danced and sang as their coach fielded phone calls from home. They danced a ring around him, informing the intrigued back home that the cricketing Eagles had landed.

Their flag will be hoisted next to such cricketing royalty as Australia, England and India next year.

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The professor was in the midst of it all, giddy with joy at seeing the project of a lifetime come together. The rest of the world might say it’s only an Under-19 World Cup, but it means the world to Nigerian cricket. To West African cricket.

“For a long time, people expected us to come to these tournaments and fail. But we are working. Some of our methods are unconventional, but they are our methods,” Ukwenya smiles.

Among their rituals, the team ululates on the field. They cajole and cackle and croon. They are unapologetically Nigerian and their flag will be seen at a world tournament next year. Now, their anthem will strum out for the cricketing world to hear and the game will grow a bit more.

Ireland, Afghanistan and now Nigeria. All disturbing the natural order of things in their own, inimitable fashions.

That is enough to make an old professor smile. And maybe even dance a little.

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