Failed expectations and shattered dreams for women cricket players

Stray Impala’s wicketkeeper Sharon Juma waits for a delivery missed by Margaret Banja during the Nairobi Provincial Cricket Association T20 League 2015/2016 season at Premiere Cricket Club in January 24, 2016. [Jonah Onyango]

It has been two decades since Kenyan girls took to the crease to test their batting and bowling abilities, yet they still cry for support.

Growing up at a time when Kenya had created its place on the cricket world map and was a global powerhouse in the game of bat and ball, the girls were full of expectations.

They had bigger dreams; wanted to scale the heights, make a career out of the sport and just like their male counterparts, travel the world and play at the World Cup one day.

Current national team captain Margaret Banja recalls how together with her elder sister Mary Belle and their peers Emma Wangui, Caroline Nekesa, Yvonne Mashedi, Mercyline Adhiambo and Malyun Hassan among others attended the first ever girls cricket camp at the Ministry of Works grounds, South C in 2000.  

“It was an exciting experience although it was not easy because we trained for close to five hours a day and sometimes we could eat three biscuits and juice provided for us by Vidya Chandrasekar,” Banja said.

The desire to excel in the sport and become stars, inspired the girls to work harder.

While Banja and Belle had learned their basic playing skills from watching their brothers Lameck Onyango and Nehemiah Odhiambo and also top cricketers like Maurice Odumbe, Steve Tikolo and Tom Tikolo who were their neighbours, the other girls came from a schools programme initiated by Nairobi Provincial Cricket Association (NPCA).

The schools project just like in other sports was successful and many girls started playing cricket. The number of girls embracing the sport increased but there was a problem according to former Cricket Kenya Development Officer for women Dun Okinyo who also doubled up as the women’s national team coach.

“Many girls developed interest in cricket and the numbers were increasing in schools by the day. The only problem was that they had nowhere to go after school because there was no cricket for girls away from school,” Okinyo said.

It was in 2010 that Okinyo requested the national governing body to form a league so the girls can have more play time.

“We formed a four team league for the women and more girls turned up. At the time the national team had also started to perform well and everything was looking up for the girls,” he added.

The league was formed in a way that it could accommodate all from primary school to the working class. Alongside the league there was also the money for runs competition where the girls contributed money and formed teams that battled in a winner takes it all competition.

“Money for runs kept the girls playing as they could turn up for the game because they wanted to play, enjoy the game, nurture their talents and earn money.”

However, the league as well as the money for runs contests did not last and ended in 2012. Many stars were born through the schools program including the former national team captain the late Emily Ruto.

Emily christened Chepcricket due to her passion for the game was introduced to the game by Okinyo while at Kenya High School together with Beryl Oyugi and Brenda Mogusu who all later played for the women’s national team.

Banja says the death of Emily, the daughter of former Bomet County Governor Isaac Ruto was a big blow to the women’s game.

“Emily was the engine of the team, she was very passionate and kept our hopes alive, with her around we thrived and were destined for greatness. She urged us to play on and make all our dreams come true including that of playing at the world cup. Her death was a big blow to the women’s game,” Banja added.

National team players Sarah Bhakita and Ruth Mwihaki learned their cricket at Dr Livingston Primary School while Peris Adhiambo and Mercyline were at Heshima Primary School.

National team wicketkeeper Sharon Juma (Moi Forces Academy), Sylvia Kinyua (Moi Girls Nairobi) are all products of the schools program under Okinyo.

After the success of the schools programme in Nairobi, Cricket Kenya expended the programme to other places with David Asiji going to Nakuru in 2011.

The Nakuru initiative proved successful and two years later the girls made it to the Under 19 national team.

“Ruth Ambiyo made it to the team first and I believe it was the turning point for many girls in our programme, the success was almost instant and many of them made it the national team and are top players in the country,” Asiji said.

Daisy Wairimu, Mary Wambui, Quintor Aoko, Esther Wangare, Edith Waithaka, Charity Wambui and Caroline Wambui were all part of the 2013 under 19 team.

Wairimu would later prove herself earning the senior teams captaincy but a road accident kept her away from the game for some time.

With no league, tournaments or international championships to keep them in the game, most girls are no longer playing cricket.

“The Kenyan girls were on the right track, they had even beaten Zimbabwe in an International Cricket Council World Cup Pre-qualifiers but could not advance to the global qualifying event due to an inferior run rate.

Kenyan girls have played many international events with their first being against Uganda who they lost to.

They have also played South Africa, Tanzania, Zimababwe and Rwanda within the region. In 2016 Kenya won the International Women’s T20 Cup held in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates but since then their hopes have been fading away.

Problems at the top management of the sport have however, dimmed the hopes of the girls with some losing hope and quitting the sport they were once very passionate about. The fortunate ones like Peris and Marie Aimee found new homes in foreign countries.

Peris who had a bright future in the sport now plays for the German national team while Aimee made it to the Canada national team but is yet to feature for her new country due to work commitments.

“For them to make it to the national teams in these countries means they are quality players who would have made Kenya proud. I’m happy for them because their current environments are favourable for them to excel in the sport. It is my prayer that the chiefs of the game here can also create an enabling environment to develop talent,” Banja said.

Banja, one of the pioneers of the game who still remains standing, concludes that there is talent in the country if nurtured to take Kenyan cricket to the next level.

“I coach in schools and many girls are not only talented but also eager to excel. All we need is a favourable environment for them to thrive.”

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