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Bitter-Sweet Journey of Nigerian Teenage Cricketers

Published by The Nation on Sat, 15 Feb 2020

Our ReporterIn Kimberley, the sleepy South African city that launched the Nigeria to Cricket big stage, not many knew what to expect from the bunch of players whose qualification video hit over 5million view on Youtube.Every competition they have entered since 2017 has opened them a bigger stage starting with their division one qualification in South Africa. As an Under-17 team that they were, they bullied everyone and picked one of the two tickets to the elite category.Sylvester Okpe headed the pack and bore the burden of leading his peers on every quest. Soon after they crossed the first hurdle they became thirsty for more.Talking about thirst, it actually has been the drive of the newly-elected President of the Nigeria Cricket Federation (NCF) board, Yahaya Ukwenya; a Professor of Surgery, who had been persistent on leading a new charge to restructure the countrys cricket; that the boys has been riding on.I did not like the way things were in Nigeria cricket that was why I threw in my hat to contest for the Presidency. I had served before and I knew that if we had a good team and lay proper foundation for development, things will change and we will see results.Ukwenya had the habit of spending his spare time at the Ahmadu Bello Cricket Pitch when he is not in the theatre.Read Also:U19 World Cup Cricket South Africa 2020: Junior Yellow GreensOkpe; the captain, was one of the players that found the game in one of Ukenwyas many clinics at the stadium and so too are a number players who now play for the Northern Provincial state of Kaduna in Nigeria and the national team.I, for one, believe that talent is not in short supply for this game in Nigeria or any sporting endeavour for that matter. All we need are the facilities, motivation and a proper structure to manage the process. And that was what I had in my mind when I was running for the President of the NCF, he added.Anytime the team won any of their match, (especially against any of the top rated African side), Ukwenya seemed justified that cricket in Nigeria can actually hit the mark.But, back in Kimberely when the team faced Australia in their opening match at the U-19 World Cup nothing seem to have prepared them for the heavy defeat with Elijah Olaleye 21 runs off 53 balls to be best performer on the Nigerian side; Tanveer Sanghawas the showman for the Aussies.Bit-by-bit everyone adjusted their expectation to fit what a stage like the Cricket World Cup had on offer, except for members of the NCF board.They lost the next four matches in succession; against West Indies, England, Sri Lanks and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) before they nicked their first win against the Japanese team, a fellow debutant at the World Cup.The team arrived in South Africa two months ahead of the event but that couldnt cure their apparent naivety when they marched out.Uyi Akpata, the Vice President of the NCF says the Federation had a long-term development plan.In his words, The results from the Cricket World Cup is not discouraging at all, it compliments and strengthens our strategic developments agenda and if anything. Every investment in the team is an investment in the future of the game.We have some players that would graduate to form the crux of the national team while some younger players who are barely 17 years have been deliberately included to make the World Cup, so they can be fused to the new U-17 team that would be assembled soon.It would be fair to admit that the boys only played to their true worth in the game, but more than that, we have also seized the opportunity to make an investment into the future of the game, he added.Tayo Sowole, Secretary-General of the Club Cricket Committee, Nigerias most vibrant and biggest Cricket League added that the losses are really not what they are. A lot of cricket stakeholders gave their support for this team. I watched all the group matches of the team live in Kimberley along with a number of people who flew down from Nigeria to see them.Like never before, these young players were exposed to some level of training and benefits no cricket team in Nigeria history (as far as I know) has enjoyed and that is one of the gains we have from here. A lot of things might not have come together but it would be entirely wrong to judge them by the results from this event. He said.Okpe was Vice Captain of the senior national team when the team featured at the T-20 World Cup Qualifier in UAE in 2019 and five of them have been drafted to the join the newly assembled national team in a Tour of Zimbabwe in March, ahead of the African Cricket Associations T-20 Championship in Nairobi Kenya same month.There were clearly technical deficiencies in the team that wasnt part of the history of the team through their qualifiers, noted Dahiru Enesi, the Technical Director of NCF and he believes they were explainable despite not anticipated.He is confident along with other members of the board that the World Cup remains the exposure and showcase of the cricket talents that abounds at home.According to Akpata, the better part of the gains is some strategic alliances that the Federation was able to forge with.We are presently talking to West Indies and Australia on possible partnerships for our development agenda and this adds to existing relationships we have with South Africa and Zimbabwe; all of which are test nations.He said the Federation would work with the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports to preserve the talents and process that produced the historic qualification. The Sports Minister Sunday Dare, who had hosted the teenagers prior to their World Cup campaign had commended the players and promised to keep himself abreast of their progress during and after the World Cup.It is ironic that the Nigerian teenage cricket team despite their many trials at the World Cup has sustained their pedigree as the torch bearers for the games development.Endurance Ofem, the players representative on the board and former Captain of the senior national team added that nothing for now can diminish the achievement of the team.They got Nigeria the first World Cup ticket after qualifying us to the Division One in Africa. For their sake too, we are the team everyone fears now in Africa, and at the ACA T-20 event in Nairobi (Kenya) in March, everyone want to see Nigeria play because a number of this team members will be in the national team, he said.
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