Cutting Niches - Cricket gains footholds in Nigeria

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Cutting Niches - Cricket gains footholds in Nigeria

Postby greyblazer » Fri Feb 12, 2016 12:48 pm

In the sprawling city of Gwoza, Nigeria, schools and homes are embellished, unfortunately, with abandoned hand grenades, landmines and Kalashnikovs. The city adorning gutted shopfronts and walls scarred with bullet wounds capsulizes the protracted uprising of the dreaded militant group Boko Haram.

A similar scale of destruction has been wrought upon other cities Chibok, Borno, Madagali, Dikwa, Marte, Gulak. It is a common sight to see troops patrolling at public places, holding fully-loaded machine guns. In these tough times, sport has tended to act as a balm to break free from those soul-shattering experiences. It provides an opportunity to escape from fear and suffering.

Football is by far the most popular sport in the country. But, there is another sport, played with a willow and a leather ball, that is, surprisingly, flourishing in the region. In particular, in the largest city of Nigeria Lagos cricket has become one of the favourite pastimes for many. Despite mostly living a straitjacketed existence, it is not uncommon to see a sturdy group of cricketers shouldering kits on their way to play for the Ibeju Lekki club in Lagos.

The history of cricket in Nigeria can be traced back to the early 19th century. The sport, however, was mainly confined to the 'educated elite'. Back in 1904, Nigeria took on Ghana (then Gold Coast) in a friendly game of cricket and over a period of time, it became an annual fixture.

By the mid-1970s, the sport had seemingly hit a dead end. There weren't many takers for cricket. Nigeria had also become a part of West African Cricket Conference. In 2002, when the West African Cricket Conference ceased to exist and Nigeria emerged as an independent associate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC), there were very few cricket grounds, no proper coaching centres and no real organised structure in place to help the game and interest develop.

Gradually, through the earnest efforts of the board and a few keen enthusiasts, the country is sitting up and taking notice of their progress. The facilities are improving and the coaching structures have become more robust. There is also an upsurge in the popularity of the game.

"Cricket in Nigeria is played in over 22 states [out of 36 states] in both male and female categories. In the last 3 years, Nigeria has embarked on developmental programs, initiating national junior championships in both boys and girls categories. [We have been] Organizing sports teachers cricket courses, coaches and umpires courses, media seminars [teaching the journalist how to report the game] and introducing cricket to primary schools across the country," Joseph Eshua, Nigeria Cricket Federation's [NCF] General Manager told Cricbuzz.

Grappling with financial difficulties to fund the game, the attempt to spread the game across the country has seen many roadblocks. The board receives most of the funds from the ICC. They sometimes even rent cricket grounds for various events held in the region to raise money.

Eshua spoke about the various sources through which the game is funded in the country and the challenges faced by the board. "Nigeria has three sources of income. [Funding from] the ICC - this is given to support developmental programs in the country. Sponsors [individuals/corporate bodies] - a few programs are being sponsored by some cricket enthusiasts and corporate bodies. And the government. The government supports only international trips." However, he added that there is a "lack of support from government on developmental programs [and] lack of interest from corporate bodies due to little knowledge about the game."

The lack of funds is a severe drawback, but for now what's available is what will do. Joseph Oche Onaja, in his coaching clinic, has young hopefuls playing with bats that cost only 8 dollars. None of the batsmen wear helmets and they have to make to do with tennis balls rather than a leather one. They may not be the most effective measures, but slowly the likes of Onaja are helping cricket gain a foothold, even in states that are under the siege of Boko Haram.

Femi Solebo, the Chairman of Club Cricket Committee Lagos, is one of the few cricket enthusiasts playing a vital role in transforming Nigeria's cricket. Solebo, who fell in love with the sport while studying in the Unikted Kingdom, has been one of the chief financiers of the Lagos League. The club he plays for - Ibeju Lekki - even funds the cricketers' education, lunches and kits.

Solebo agrees that compared to football, it is more expensive to play cricket. "With soccer, all you need is just one ball and then you're away," he said in an interview with BBC News. "Whatever it is they want to do, we'll fund that and insist that you can only be a member of this club if you have some kind of educational background - and that's what the other clubs try to do as well."

The Nigeria side is also playing to help the country progress through the lower rungs of world cricket. From the chaos of numerous civil wars, Nigeria qualifying for Division 5 of World Cricket Division League in 2013 is testament to what can be accomplished when passion meets perseverance.

Two years before their Division 5 qualification, only a steady half-century by Kuwait's Irfan Bhatti scuttled Nigeria's hopes of winning the final of Division 7. In the two years that followed, they had made the jump to Division 5, where they have, since, played some impressive cricket.

The relative success of Nigeria in the World Cricket Division League has served as a catalyst to raise the profile of the game in the region. Nigeria has already started its preparation for the 2016 World Division League 5 to be held in Jersey. Twenty-two players have been picked for a preparatory camp and they are scheduled to tour England, where they will play a few games. Kunle Adegbola will captain the side, with Obruthe Clive Ogbimi coaching the setup.

In terms of popularity, cricket still faces a battle for oxygen when up against football. With Nigerian footballers representing various clubs in top leagues around the world, it has naturally captured the imagination of the country. Even the highly competitive Lagos League club matches are watched only by a handful of people, some of whom happen to be former national cricketers.

One more issue the board faces is the lack of sponsorship and broadcast deals. The general consensus is that to attract sponsors, the board perhaps needs to start a national league.

Nigeria has been tottering due to incessant civil wars and political instability. The mood of the country is mostly morose and sombre. The deep scars of violence have crushed the spirits of thousands of citizens. For those aspiring cricketers in Nigeria, it is all the more reason to play the game; as in cricket, there is hope. ... in-nigeria
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