“At close of play, Mike Smith, the MCC captain, congratulated me on my batting and asked if I had thought of coming to England to make a career out of cricket. My father thought that there was no harm in Mr. Smith putting my name forward when he returned to London – probably nothing would come of it!”
So wrote ‘Basher’ Hassan, speaking of his 1964 knock of 84 on a Nairobi matting deck, against an MCC side spearheaded by Jeff Jones, David Larter and Tom Cartwright.
The following year came a contract with Nottinghamshire; a relationship which lasted 20 years, and more, with his playing days ending in 1985 – but his involvement with the club continuing for many years afterward.
It was, in many respects, the real starting point for Kenya’s cricketing ethos.
Although the game had been brought to Mombasa, a coastal city, in the late 1890s – about a decade after rule had been transferred to (what was later called) the British East Africa Company – it had taken much longer to embed itself in Kenyan culture.
Cricket had been the centre of Kenya’s first multi-racial organisation, when the Kenyan Cricket Association was formed in 1953, but it was still four more years before an MCC touring side came calling.
It really did take Hassan’s brilliance, on a mainstream cricketing platform, to push Kenyan cricket into a wider stage; but even then, it was without an individual identity, being then a part of the East Africa side, and flying under that flag at the 1975 World Cup.
It was 21 years after their first ‘representation’ at a World Cup, that Kenya competed in a Cricket World Cup. At that point, the side was led by one Maurice Odumbe; whose career ended in controversial circumstances less than ten years later.
But at that point, he was one of Kenya’s leading lights; a team packed with youngsters and recently lit flames, who went on to form the base of the team for about a decade.
Among the crop of exciting prospects who pushed Kenya to a wider audience during that tournament was a 17 year-old pace-bowling all-rounder.
“I used to live next to the Nairobi Gymkhana Cricket Club, so I just developed an interest from there, and I was good enough to make it to the national side.”
Thomas Odoyo was his name, and his career over the following 18 years saw him as one of the leading lights of the associate cricket world – he was the first man outside of the Test nations to reach 100 ODI wickets, and alongside Steve Tikolo formed the spine of the Kenyan side that went through so many ups and downs over the coming years.
It was a career that, perhaps surprisingly, had begun at a national level even earlier than that tournament. In September 1994, having not long turned 16, Odoyo represented his nation against the touring Transvaal side from South Africa.
Although he made just one run over his two innings, his four-for in Transvaal’s only innings suggested a talent promising to break through.
So by the 1996 World Cup, hosted in the subcontinent, Odoyo was already verging on being a fixture in the national side.
“That was a great experience – a bit intimidating, but all the same it’s a memory that I’ll treasure forever.”
That competition saw the Kenyans throw themselves quite dramatically into the limelight, with a win over a West Indies side which was still littered with throwbacks to their era at the top of world cricket.
Richie Richardson, Brian Lara, Keith Arthurton, Jimmy Adams, Roger Harper, Ian Bishop, Curtly Ambrose, and Courtney Walsh presented the large majority of the side who could recall the glory years of West Indian cricket.
Alongside youngsters like Sherwin Campbell, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and Cameron Cuffy, the side should have run down Kenya’s mediocre 166 with ease. Instead, they capitulated to 93 all-out; a result that will go down in the annals of cricketing lore.
“We were not that confident [between innings]. We always believed that the West Indies were a good side, but after we got a few wickets, the belief started to come in – and that’s when everyone started to believe we could actually win. When we snapped up a few early wickets, and the West Indies were struggling – obviously, when you smell victory, then the intensity just gets up there.”
“Most of those guys were our idols. When we were growing up, most of us were looking up to the West Indies. To go there and actually beat them, it was something that was just amazing.”
Despite that remarkable success, the team wasn’t able to qualify through to the next round; the West Indies were good enough in their other matches to sneak through.
So rolled around 1997, a year in which Odoyo had a major personal event, and a significant team achievement. Being part of the South African academy was something that shaped Odoyo and his cricket; playing alongside and against the best players in the Republic meant that he could prove himself on a level that he would otherwise never be exposed to.
“That is where my cricket actually went up. I was going there and playing cricket against most of the national team players from South Africa. At that time the late Hansie Cronje was coming to play, Herschelle Gibbs, Pollock, there were some good players who played for South Africa, and they were playing against us at the academy.
“Pat Symcox, Makhaya Ntini, Nantie Hayward – Hayward was actually playing for the academy – playing against those guys, and having some of them in the same side, it makes you start to believe in yourself more. I’d be bowling to them in the nets most of the time, and doing well against them, so that made me believe that I’m actually a good player.”
It helped ready Odoyo for the 1997 ICC Trophy (later called the World Cup Qualifiers, and now not called anything, given recent World Cup restructuring), where he and his Kenyan teammates landed themselves qualification for the 1999 World Cup, to be held in the United Kingdom.
Coming into the final – against Bangladesh – both sides had already qualified, but pride and a trophy were at stake. When rain and pressure combine, funny things happen: Kenya had been cruising to the victory, only to falter, and see the match turn dramatically.
On the second day of the match (making use of the reserve day), a wet outfield had delayed things yet further. When the Bangladeshis finally got a chance to bat, they required 166 in 25 overs – difficult today, unheard-of in 1997.
“We were actually cruising, we were winning easily … but, at the end of the day, a great game of cricket.”
Martin Suji delivered the final over, with Bangladesh eight-down and needing 11 – they managed it, and it kick-started their rise to Test status.
For Kenya, the loss didn’t dent their path forward: they still qualified for the 1999 World Cup, where they intended to build on the successes of 1996. But it didn’t quite work out like that, and the results were a significant disappointment for a team intending to push forward.
“I think it was the conditions, mostly. We were playing in conditions that we were not really used to. In England, the weather is cold, and most of us were actually freezing there, and the wickets were doing a bit more than we were used to. So I thing that was the main contributor to that kind of performance. If you look at Kenyan cricket, most the wickets are pretty flat and the ball just comes through to the bat, and when we went there [to England] the ball was doing a bit more, and it was difficult for us to adjust.”
But Kenya were certainly still showing that they intended to be a leading light of Associate cricket – it was, perhaps, a surprise that Bangladesh were awarded Test status ahead of them after the World Cup, but Odoyo retrospectively believes Kenya wouldn’t have been ready.
“At that time, most of the guys were disappointed that we didn’t get it. To be very honest, we weren’t really ready by then, because our structures were not really there. To get Tests, you need to have proper structures.”
Not long after that, Malcolm Gray became the ICC President and set about promoting the associate cause. Coincidentally, in 2000, they hosted the ‘ICC Knockout Trophy’ or mini-world cup as it was colloquially known.
It later became the ICC Champions Trophy and has morphed into a beast very different to what it was originally intended to be: a festival of cricket in a developing cricket nation, to help build that nation’s cricket financially.
“I think financially, that tournament helped our cricket. We didn’t get many sponsors back then, so to get a tournament like that helped our cricket a lot. When you’re trying to develop the game, it helps a lot when you have so many good cricketers coming to your country. All the youngsters from the schools, they all came in to watch those matches. So it helps a lot to develop some of the talent that comes through into the national team.”
At the time, the ICC was helping associates in another way too – the ‘big’ nations used to play regular one-day games against the associates, and sides would often be involved in tri-series with such teams. It was something that was huge for those associate sides, and the impact has been the opposite since such games have dwindled to near-zero.
“We are struggling now because of that, actually, we don’t get to play the big teams that much. That’s probably because of our security situation also, people are saying the security situation is bad, and the ICC is scared of sending teams to Kenya. I think that plays a big role, because if you look at it we’re playing most of our games outside. Having a team to fly out of the country all of the time is expensive for the associates, so that’s affecting our cricket.”
As Odoyo points out, even aside from the big national sides, the provinces and domestic sides that used to come touring afforded the Kenyan players a chance to compete against world-class cricketers, but without that schedule of games, the side will continue to struggle.
In 2001, things were very different: ODIs against South Africa and India, and a very packed match list in the lead-up to the 2003 World Cup. Those matches against South Africa and India saw Odoyo manage his maiden ODI half-ton, and then make it two-in-two the following game.
The first, against the South Africans, was against bowlers of the ilk of Shaun Pollock, Charl Langeveldt, Makhaya Ntini and Lance Klusener.
“When I was 19, and played in the academy, I’d played those guys like the Pollocks. So I was pretty much used to pace bowling, I enjoyed playing pace bowling. I developed my cricket to the spin later on, but pace bowling I was pretty comfortable with.”
The next game faced a very different challenge: Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, but Odoyo played them with ease too, making another 50. Odoyo is extremely modest recounting his performance against those two – pointing out that it was a South African deck, and so “skidding on” rather than ragging with huge turn.
But at the time, he says, “my confidence just went through the roof” after those performances against South Africa and India.
It certainly helped in the lead-up to the 2003 World Cup – a lead-up helped by the schedule Kenya had. A TriNations series was held in Kenya, then the Champions Trophy, and then a tour of Zimbabwe. By the time the World Cup (played in South Africa and Kenya) came about, the team was match ready.
“That was very, very crucial. By that time, most of our side had played together for about ten, eleven years. The composition of the team was made up of guys who had played together for a while, so having those matches had a very, very good impact. After that we went to South Africa for the provincial matches, and we surprised ourselves with the performances we put in – we were actually beating the provincial sides so easily, and they had good players, they had players who had played for South Africa. We surprised ourselves, and we didn’t really know how good we were until we did well in the World Cup itself.”
By the time of that World Cup, however, the issues were starting that would plague Kenya for years to come: on-field success was counterbalanced by infighting and politicking at an administrative level.
The team spirit was still strong, with the outside influence not hurting the dressing room, but what happened in board rooms had the much longer-lasting impact. “We could’ve built on that,” Odoyo says of Kenyan cricket’s success at the time, “and I think we could’ve been farther than we are at the moment.”
But, in the on-field realm, it was that World Cup which marks the high-tide mark of Kenyan cricket. They made the semi-finals (which was helped, to a degree, by match boycotts fuelled by security and/or politics), and names were made – those who saw Collins Obuya’s outstanding leg-spin won’t forget it any time soon.
“After we beat Sri Lanka, we didn’t really mind about New Zealand not coming. By them not coming, after we beat Sri Lanka, we would go through. They did us a favour by New Zealand not coming. Yes, people were talking about the security issue and all of that, but from a security point of view there was no justification.”
Odoyo says he can understand “to some extent” why they didn’t come, but he points out the security measures in place, and doesn’t believe the New Zealanders made the right call. But it was certainly in Kenya’s best interests to keep the Kiwis away, because it helped them through to the Super Sixes.
Because of the somewhat confusing points system, they only required a win over Zimbabwe to qualify for the semi-finals.
“Celebrations went all night, they were big celebrations. We enjoyed ourselves. Going to the Super Sixes, forget about the financial part of it, but for our cricket – with all the talk of Test cricket and all of that – we knew that our cricket would be talked about for a long time. A great day for Kenyan cricket.”
The semi-final was against the eventual runners-up India, who had an enviable side – and Kenya quietly slipped out the tournament.
“I think, to be honest, the guys were already satisfied. I think, when we went in there, we were already happy to have got past the second round. If we were a bit greedy, we could’ve probably played better than we did.”
He does note that there were some in the side who believed they could progress even further, however, but it wasn’t to be. They remain the only associate side to make it to a World Cup semi-final – or, indeed, a World Cup knockout match of any sort.
Odoyo can consider himself as a big part of that success. He averaged over 30 with willow in hand, and took nine wickets at 24.33 with the ball.
“It’s all about confidence. When you come into a team, and you know you are one of the main players, it helps a lot because you’re not worried about being dropped and all that – you’re just worried about your own performance, and take pride in your own performance. I think that is what helped me.
“I took pride in my performance – even until now, still playing club cricket, I only want to do well. I don’t go into a field to make nothing, that’s always been my motto – I don’t want to go in the field and just fill the team sheet, I want to go there and make a difference. That worked very well for how I played, and coaching now I try encourage kids to play like that. Don’t just go into a field and fill the numbers, try and make a difference, let people know that you are there.”
Over the next 12 to 24 months, Kenyan cricket indisputably collapsed. Board disputes spilled over to the players, who threatened to strike, sponsors pulled out, and performances dropped rapidly. Eventually, the ICC intervened and stripped Kenya of ODI status. They were dark times for the nation’s cricket.
“The players’ perspective was that the board got greedy. We failed because of management issues, nothing else. If we could’ve built on the success that we’d had, we could have really gone up. Even if not Test status, we could’ve been farther ahead – the ICC at that time were willing to invest in Kenyan cricket, grassroots cricket and all of that. From 2003 until now, we could’ve developed a lot of cricketers.
“Even if we had struggled a bit after senior players had left, we would’ve been in a better position because we could have developed cricket. If you look at it, the development wasn’t great at that time. Then we had two years out of it, and that just messed us up. Once you take a break for two years, once you come back you’ll never be the same again – and we were not the same when we came back.”
When the team returned, they qualified emphatically for the 2007 World Cup – a success, Odoyo believes, that was purely because of the base of experience still offered by players like Obuya, Tikolo and himself. There were very few players coming through, and the side was very much an aging one.
The ’07 World Cup itself was a disappointing one for all associates (excepting Ireland), with only three group matches played. Kenya’s pool drew them against England, New Zealand and Canada; with only two of the four qualifying for the Super Eights, the odds were stacked against associate nations. “I remember we played more games in the friendlies, than in the World Cup,” Odoyo recalls.
“We went all the way to the West Indies and didn’t play enough games. It wasn’t good for the development of the smaller nations. Once you’ve gone through all the qualification and all of that, you have to play at least five games – so that you also take the experience from there and bring it back to your own country.”
But despite 2007 not being an outstanding year for the Kenyan side, for Odoyo personally, it was probably his best. It culminated in representation for the combined Africa XI that played an Asia XI in the “Afro-Asia Cup”.
“Africa XI, getting the experience of being in the same changing room with some of the greatest players in the world, that is something that is up there. It helps a lot, the confidence just goes up.”
By this stage, “the body was starting to give in, so I was looking at batting more than bowling at that time,” and it helped him make his one-and-only ODI century: in the first game of a bilateral series against Canada, batting at number seven. It was not-out, and his unbroken 98-run partnership with Jimmy Kamande helped guide the team to victory.
“That’s something that you won’t forget, scoring a hundred is never easy. Being an all-rounder, although I’d scored hundreds in club cricket, I was usually batting down the order. So from there I think I started believing in myself more as a batsman.”
The next big event for Odoyo, as a player, came in the 2009-10 season when he played for the Southern Rocks in Zimbabwe’s First Class competition, the Logan Cup. Odoyo didn’t have great success, averaging 18 with the bat and 37 with the ball, which was very much indicative of the injury he was carrying – a hamstring niggle which plagued him throughout the summer, and even led to him missing matches for Kenya.
“That season, I really didn’t enjoy that much … I wasn’t really at my fullest, at 100%, and that really affected my cricket there. … I didn’t fulfil my potential there.”
Eventually, the 2011 World Cup rolled around. Kenya performed poorly, and lost all six of their matches by significant margins – they passed 200 just once, and were rolled for just 69 against New Zealand. Rumblings, off-field, were adding to the problems.
“That, mostly, had to do with the coach we had at that time [Eldine Baptise]. I think he could have done a better job in bringing the team together. … I wasn’t particularly happy with the coach, because we didn’t get along, I don’t know, he had a thing for me. I don’t know why, whether he felt intimidated by me or what. … If the coach had managed things properly, I think we could have done a lot better.”
After the tournament finished, things got even worse. The contracts fiasco made no one look good, and was a dark moment for a once proud cricket nation. Players like Odoyo and Jimmy Kamande were particularly outspoken: Odoyo described it as malicious and unfair at the time.
“By that time [of the contracts situation], the board had already decided that they were going down the route of the youngsters. The likes of myself and Jimmy [Kamande] were being thrown out completely. That’s why I talked about malicious, because I don’t think we handled our transition properly. I was, what, 32, 33? If you’re forced to retire at that age, you still have a lot to offer.”
That could have been the end of Odoyo’s international career. He spoke to those within the board, and made it clear that he wanted to be involved in helping nurture the youngsters and helping the team to grow; with Steve Tikolo retiring, some experience was needed in the team.
But they weren’t interested. To all intents and purposes it was the end for Odoyo, surely?
But no, in 2013 he made a return – aged 35, plucked from coaching – for the World T20 and World Cup qualifiers. Having been given the tip-off that he was in the picture a while before the tournaments, he took the field alongside Steve Tikolo, who was returning aged 42, and both performed perfectly commendably.
“It was [difficult to return], it was. From a physical point of view, forget about the mental part of it because I knew that I could still do it, but from a physical point of view, trying to get fit after many years of not doing much – I was assistant coach by then – it was very, very difficult.”
Now, Odoyo is very much a coach – and in that regard, he has possibly an ever greater challenge than he did as a player. Kenyan cricket is at a very low place – they currently languish mid-table in Division Two of the World Cricket League, and don’t look like returning to ODI status in the near future.
Odoyo, however, is positive – he believes the team can, and will, rise again.
“At the moment, what the board is doing is a step in the right direction. The board is trying to organise matches so that most of the guys get to play more games. As a team, you can’t just be playing a major tournament without experience. They’re trying to get teams from India to come here, and from here to go there, and not just India, other places too. At the end of the day, you can practise all you want, but if you don’t get enough matches you’ll struggle.
“We’re also upgrading the facilities that we have. The facilities we have, we don’t have enough where you can face the bowling machine and things. I think the board is working on it, trying to get some of the clubs where you can have the bowling machine there so that all day you can just hit balls, and work with bowlers and everything. One day we’ll get there.”
As a coach, he sees it has crucial that he imparts the right attitude onto the players. He says that, for young cricketers coming through, it’s entirely about having the right attitude and discipline in order to succeed; “I believe those are the key things for a player to be successful. If the discipline is there, and the right attitude is there, most of them will become a good player.”
One issue that can be marked down as ‘room for improvement’ is Twenty20. 2007 was only edition of the event that Kenya has competed in. They’ve failed to qualify for any subsequent tournament, which is something that Odoyo hopes will change soon.
“That is what, until now, puzzles most of us. Because, naturally, Kenyan players are stroke players. I don’t know why we struggle to play in the T20 format. We’re supposed to be good, because we naturally strike the ball well. But the pressure gets to us, that’s the only reason I can say. Pressure gets to us, and our guys are not composed enough in the shorter formats. To be honest, I don’t understand why.”
Odoyo is especially confused by their inability to convert ability to performance, given how well the players do in nets and in non-international T20 games.
Looking at today’s associate cricketing structure – with the likes of the World Cricket League and Intercontinental Cup taking centre stage – Odoyo describes it as “not bad”. With more matches played, a more equal associate field, and better player development, Kenya is in a place where they have to perform: “we have to up our game,” Odoyo says succinctly.
He points out the example of Afghanistan and their meteoric rise. With teams doing that, Kenya has been left behind – and he says it’s entirely in Kenya’s hands to make that gap back up.
The development of better facilities, and a better structure, not just “club cricket and nothing else” that will allow Kenya to rise again.
Odoyo is also disappointed by the marginalisation of associates in the future World Cups, suggesting that only the ICC really understand why it’s happened.
“If the ICC really want to develop the game, they need to expand the teams.”
What’s evident, speaking to Odoyo, is that he’s passionate about Kenyan cricket. He’s realistic about what’s happened and the challenges ahead, but isn’t willing to simply accept where they are now. His reaction to Aasif Karim’s comments that Kenyan cricket is “dead and buried” sums him up:
“No, I don’t agree even one bit. Here’s Aasif Karim saying Kenyan cricket is dead and buried – his son [Irfan Karim] is still playing for this country, so I don’t know why he’s saying this. He should be someone who comes and makes a difference. I’m not for people who criticise without making solutions. He has a chance to come and help the game, he’s a former cricketer – so instead of saying Kenyan cricket is dead and buried, he can come and make a difference.”
As someone who’s watching and interacting with Kenyan cricket day-to-day, and trying his best to help lift the nation’s cricket once more, he’s probably best placed to judge whether it really is ‘dead and buried’ – and as we’ve seen, the answer is a definitive no.
“I really believe, from what I’ve seen from Kenyan cricket, from the youngsters coming through, it’s just a matter of time before you see Kenyan cricket coming up there.”