OL PEJETA, Kenya – With lions lurking in the long grass, the barefoot Maasai warrior gallops into a sprint and swings his spear arm — delivering a fast-paced cricket ball straight at the wicket.
Dressed in flowing red skirts and draped in colourful bead necklaces, the warriors from the legendary Kenyan tribe are one of the world’s most unusual and unlikely cricketing teams.
“It is a sport that at first seemed very strange to us,” said Robert Kilesi Piroris, 28, Maasai warrior and cricket player.
“But today the game brings us and the community together, and we love it,” he added, speaking as he waited to bat in a friendly match, on a pitch mown out of the rolling grass savannah of northern Kenya, with giraffe strolling past in the distance.
It is doubtful you could find a place more different from the birthplace of the sport on the manicured grass of Britain’s famous Lord’s Cricket Ground.
But that is exactly where the Maasai hope to go, after they were invited to join an international competition at the renowned field in August, at the Twenty20 cricket “Last Man Stands World Championships” in London.
“We can show the world that we may look different to those dressed in cricket whites but can still play the game,” said captain Sonyanga Ole Ngais.
The team needs to raise funds, drumming up support and sponsorship for the trip, but has already shown its ability to take an international tour, playing in South Africa in 2012 in short format Twenty20 games there.
Freddie Grounds, a major in the British army which trains troops in the Laikipia region of Kenya, joined in the match to make up numbers on a visiting Indian team playing against the Maasai.
“It’s an amazing experience and sight to see them play here,” said Grounds, but added that it would be nothing compared to the sight of the warriors playing at Lord’s.
“Lord’s is the spiritual home of cricket… I guess that the traditional members of the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club, owner of Lord’s) will find it all a bit bizarre,” Grounds added.
“But if they can get there — and let’s hope they can raise sufficient funds to do it — you know, people just won’t be able to believe themselves.”
British troops stationed in Kenya keen to encourage the Maasai are even helping out to clear a cricket field for the team, since the players currently have to walk for several hours from their dispersed and remote villages to reach a training ground.
But the Maasai team are not simply about playing a good game, but also about raising awareness of key issues that their community faces.
They visit schools to talk about AIDS prevention, early marriage, gender equality, environmental protection and battling alcoholism and drug addiction.
School children turn up to watch the game, while entertainment on the sidelines and during breaks in the game include simple dramas and songs focusing on HIV awareness.Tents alongside the grounds also offer HIV tests encouraging people to get tested to know their status.
Another key issue that the cricketers can flag is the impact rampant poaching is having on wildlife.
“We’ve come to watch the game but we learn about the problems of poaching too,” said Murunga Tialolo, a schoolboy at the match, proudly showing the posters displayed near the pavilion of army canvas tents.
Cricket, imported into Kenya during British colonial rule, is played in scattered schools and in the east African country’s largest cities.
The Maasai team uses cricket metaphors to deliver messages within its highly traditional and patriarchal community, in which early marriage and female genital mutilation are firmly rooted customs.
For captain Ngais, keeping the traditional dress is a way of showing that the team members are true Maasais while still working to move their society forward.
“We want to show people that we are trying to battle some of the retrogressive issues in our culture,” he said. “But the good part of the culture, it’s there all the time,” he added, pointing to his necklaces.
While passionate about cricket, the team still needs plenty of practice should players raise the funds to go to Lord’s.
But professionals are optimistic. Vikram Dayal, an ex-Mumbai cricketer heading a touring team playing in Kenya, was quick to praise the Maasai’s “raw and natural talent” at the game, and said he is hopeful team members could one day “be playing for the national team”.