NAIROBI, Kenya, May 9 – It is the end of an era in Kenyan and world cricket.One of the greatest players to grace the game; Steve Tikolo has earmarked 2010 as the time to exit the gentleman’s game bringing down the curtain to one of the most legendary careers in the history of Kenyan sport.
“There are a lot of high points but reaching the semi finals of the 2003 world cup stands out for me and the rest of the team. Being an associate country and not featuring in test cricket, reaching the semi final was a very big achievement,” said Tikolo in an exclusive interview with Capital Sport.
Being at the forefront of three world cup campaigns is a major feat in any sport, and for Tikolo to depart the scene two years before the next campaign in India and Sri Lanka, he leaves behind big shoes for the next skipper to fill.
The 2003 world cup will always stand out as a major pillar in his career after leading his charges to one match away from clinching the title.
That epic run has gone down in cricketing folklore but the 1996 tournament also has special significance for the 38 year old middle order batsman.
The setting is the Indian city of Pune. Kenya is taking on the West Indies in a World Cup match the Carribbeans were expected to win but Tikolo and company had other ideas.
The middle order batsman’s top score of 29 in what was a low scoring affair was enough for Kenya to register one of the biggest upsets in world cricket and shake the foundations of the game to its core.
The fact that he spearheaded victory over a team that had the likes of Courtney Walsh and Shivnarine Chanderpaul while still green as an international made the world stand up and take note of the then burgeoning talent.
“That was a memorable match. We were a rookie team and no one knew much about us,” said Tikolo.
“And to beat West Indies who were our idols that we used to watch on TV was something out of this world,” he added.
Tikolo makes that quote while wearing a black top emblazoned with ‘Jamaica’, one of the countries that makes up the Windies, on the front, perhaps in recognition of how he holds the region in terms of the cricket they are famous for and which time and time he has reproduced in Kenyan colours.
Kenya finished bottom of Pool A with losses to hosts India, Zimbabwe, Australia and eventual winners Sri Lanka but that stunning win over one of the most storied sides of world cricket heralded Kenya’s recognition as a cricket super power in the making.
Apart from making his sensational debut, the 1996 World Cup was special because he was playing alongside his older brother David who featured in three ODIs.
The eldest of the three brothers Tom was also a handy cricketer in his day though he never played a lot in Kenyan colours. Steve regards their influence as the genesis of what he has achieved in his career.
“When they were playing in the Swamibapa A team, I was in the B team. After games they used to ask me how the game went and how I performed and how the number of runs and wickets I got,” he said.
“That inspired me to do well because I knew every time I’d return home they would ask me those questions. So I owe a lot of my success to them because they were my role models,” said Steve.
Beating the Windies with David laying a supporting role was also something to savour.
“That win over the Windies was a stepping stone for us because people realized that we could play. ICC (International Cricket Council) was willing to give us more matches against the test playing countries to improve our standards,” said the now former captain.
“They were also willing to fund development projects in the country but several management issues frustrated that,” he added.
Despite savouring various high points as his time as captain, Tikolo has also had to endure several run ins with the now defunct Kenya Cricket Association (KCA) whose spectacular fall from grace blighted local cricket in the earlier part of this decade.
Their performance in 2003 almost gave Kenya test status on a silver platter but wranglings in the local governing body with Sharad Ghai at the helm put paid to that exciting prospect and possibly denying a generation the chance of playing at the highest level.
Tikolo has been hailed as one of the greatest players never to have played test cricket, a travesty when you consider how many time he has dug Kenya out of a hole in times of strife.
“It does hurt not to have played in a test because I see it as an opportunity missed due to our associate status and the problems in Kenya,” said Tikolo.
“We were on the verge of gaining test cricket at the end of the 2003 world cup but the management (KCA) messed us up,” he added with a tinge of regret.
“Players had done their part by playing good cricket and competing against the top nations. The ICC again acknowledged us and wanted to fast track Kenya in to the test arena but the management with their selfish attitude and wanting to enrich themselves messed us up.”
With the KCA now a sinking ship, Kenya cricket went through its darkest period. A poor performance in the 2004 Champions trophy that was held in England saw Kenya suffer heavy losses against Pakistan and India.
His subsequent stepping down as captain due to the continuing protracted battles with the KCA and the players strike became a watershed moment for the game and as it lead to the current new administration ‘Cricket Kenya’ to take over the reins of the sport under the stewardship of advocate Samir Inamdar.
“The management now is running the game in a clean way. The only hiccups they are experiencing is lack of sponsors. To run this game you need finances because you need to put players on regular contracts, fly them to venues, pay allowances and also bring in teams,” said Tikolo.
Tikolo believes the Sahara Cricket League is a step in the right direction to make local cricket attractive again to the local population and also boost the standards of play.
“We had 60 top players featuring in that tournament and the level of that competition was very high. That’s what we need in cricket right now and for players to continue playing at that level they need to be put on full time contracts,” said Tikolo.
Tikolo looks back at his time in England, South Africa and Bangladesh as beneficial to how he is able to cope under pressure when the time calls for it.
“When you go and play out there as a professional, that team looks upon you to perform. You have the responsibility of carrying the team and try to win matches,” said Tikolo.
“That helped me transform my game, become a more responsible player and through the years helped me when I’m playing for the national team and my local club side,” he added.
In his last throes as Kenya captain, Tikolo was reunited with South African Andy Kirsten who was Kenya’s fielding tactician in 2003 and his familiarity with the team made his work easier.
“Most of us knew him already, we were aware of his work ethic and that he enjoyed working with the Kenya players. I think he has doe well with the time under the prevailing conditions,” said Tikolo.
“He prepared us in such a way that by the time we stood up to our opponents, we were aware of their strengths and weaknesses. We also knew what strategies to adopt when playing so he helped us a lot,” he added.
Tikolo’s last major assignment was helping Kenya qualify for their fifth straight World cup after finishing fourth in the world cup qualifiers that were held in South Africa.
One major concern arising from there outing in that tournament was their low batting averages. Tikolo believes Kenya’s performance at the crease was mainly due to their batting conditions even though he acknowledges that Kenya’s form with the bat has been on a downward curve.
“Our batting has been struggling for the last year or so because of there guys who have had limited experience
His ultimate departure from the team will leave a gaping hole in team but Tikolo believes that there are players already with the requisite experience to lead Kenya in to future battles.
“Thomas (Odoyo) and Jimmy (Kamande) have been around for a while. There as not old as many people think they are so they still have a long way to go in their career,” said Tikolo.
The upcoming guys like Alex Obanda, Elijah Otieno and Rakep Patel shows that Kenya’s future is in good hands given that there are now playing more games. The important thing is that they should get to play more often against superior opponents to improve their game especially now when their in form.
Since he took his bow on the international stage, the game has undergone through seismic changes with the evolution of Twenty20 standing out the most.
“What Twenty20 offers is quick cricket because a match is played over three hours because it’s a different version. Batsmen go for the big strokes due to the limited overs unlike ODIs and test cricket. When you look at the IPL (Indian Premier League) you can just see how popular the tournament is, so I do think Twenty20 is here to stay,” said Tikolo.