Despite the continuing unrest in parts of the country, Cricket Kenya CEO Tom Tikolo has confirmed in an interview with CricketEurope that it is still all systems go for the Zonal League. Not only have invites been sent out to 85 players to take part in the event, but team captains and coaches have already been selected.
Tikolo said that more players had been invited to submit their interest than there were places in the squads as there would be some who would be unable to commit themselves for the duration of the competitions which will run from February through to July. Once all confirmations are in, the list will be narrowed down to 60 players split into 4 squads of equal strength. Each team will have their own coach, team manager, physio and independent selectors and will play out of a fixed home ground.
Among the 85 players to receive invitations are one from Greensteds School in Rift Valley, 15 from Mombasa and Emmanuel Bundi, Irfan Karim and Keval Patel all of whom are still under 15. In time it is the aim of Cricket Kenya that the Zonal League will tie in with an expanded development program to include an increasing number of players from across Kenya. Work on youth development is due to kick off on a national level in April.
While captains and players are yet to be allocated to their teams, Cricket Kenya has released the names of the four coaches. Not surprisingly two of these will be current National Coach Alfred Njuguna and his assistant Martin Suji. Shahid Bwibo and Joseph Angara fill the other posts and have also been helping with the Kenya team's preparations. There are no real surprises in the captains chosen with three of the slots being taken up by Steve Tikolo, Thomas Odoyo and Peter Ongondo. The fourth captain is yet to be announced but is also likely to be a senior member of the national team.
Play is due to begin with a Twenty-20 tournament in February which Cricket Kenya aim to use to boost public and corporate interest. Currently the program is jointly sponsored by Sahara Computers and the ACA, but it is also hoped that a sponsor will also come on board for each of the teams. Team sponsorships will be used to pay transport and accommodation costs for the players, but Cricket Kenya are keen to stress that even in the unlikely event that no sponsors can be found the league will still go ahead.
Once the Twenty-20 tournament has been concluded, focus moves on to a 50 overs- a-side event which Tom Tikolo describes as being the hallmark of Kenyan cricket and the format that most players and fans will identify with. In a sense, this is the consolidation period of the program before the final and most important phase in the eyes of many players begins.
Multi innings cricket is still an alien beast to those players in Kenya outside the national team who have not benefited from playing in the Intercontinental Cup. Introducing the 3-Day competition as the final phase of the Zonal League season aims to break down this inexperience and help bridge the void between club cricket and the national team. Without exception the players and coaches are behind this step with many seeing it as being the beginning of a new age of cricket for Kenya:
Kennedy Obuya who has recently returned from playing cricket in Queensland, Australia, noted that there was a vast difference in the competitive culture of cricket in the two countries and expressed his hope that the Zonal League would go some way towards changing this.
'Playing multi innings cricket at domestic level is key to Kenya's future as a competitive cricket nation'.
Said the veteran who will no doubt use his slot to push for national selection come Kenya's European tour in July.
Hiren Varaiya, Kenya's ever improving young spinner, said that the introduction of the Zonal league could not have come at a better time after two poor years for Kenyan domestic cricket in terms of falling standards and lack of close fought games. He stressed it would be refreshing to be able to take part in games that
'Any side playing would be capable of winning'
and expressed his hope that it would also get the up and coming players used to multi-day cricket.
National Coach Alfred Njuguna agreed saying that it would give a chance for the best players in Kenya not only to play each other regularly on a competitive footing but would also
'Teach them the patience and mindset required to succeed in the longer forms of the game.'
Peter Ongondo, one of the four team captains said that having the Zonal League would help bridge the gap between club and international level:
'Players currently struggle to adapt from club to Intercontinental Cup level and this will give them the experience they need.'
While the 3-day competition will come too late in terms of helping prepare the national team for their matches against Namibia and the UAE, Cricket Kenya aims to have them completed just before the team leave to play The Netherlands and Scotland away. As well as building experience at this level, Chairman of Selectors David Waters points out that for the first time ever the Kenyan selectors will be able to choose the team based on watching the top 60 cricketers in the country playing each other over an extended period of time. It is certainly an idea that instils hope for the future of Kenyan cricket and as Kenya Captain Steve Tikolo puts it:
'It is a good idea coming at the right time.'
One gets the feeling that so long as Kenya's politicians see sense and restore order in the country, it could still turn out to be a very exciting year for Kenyan cricket.