Cricket Nigeria turns the decade with optimism
The leap year 2020 has a lot in the offing for humanity. And, sports, as usual, has its calendar full at the launch of the new decade. But it is the adventure of 18 teenage cricketers in South Africa that may line Nigeria’s sporting expectation with the rainbow.
Having survived a second-rated tag for over a century in Africa’s most populated nation, cricket surges forward as the U-19 World Cup revs up from January 20, 2020 with the Nigerian flag unbelievably hoisted to the disadvantage of front runners like Namibia, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Mr. Sunday Dare, Nigeria’s Youth and Sports Development Minister, inherited the success of qualification of the ambitious team and has been throwing his weight behind their successful campaign bid, as demonstrated by his cameo appearance at the team’s departure lounge at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos on December 8 on their way to the event.He had earlier hosted the team to show the Federal Government’s appreciation of their feat.Professor Yahaya Ukwenya, President of the epoch-making Nigeria Cricket Federation (NCF), said the minister’s support has been very consolidatory to the plan of the federation in giving the team a befitting outing at the World Cup.
“We have readied our team for optimum performance, we had almost six-month camping for the team, including getting some of the key bowlers and batsmen for specialized enhancement courses. “Their departure for the event on December 8 is a clear 43 days before it begins. It is a deliberate part of the plan to make the team’s first show at the global stage an impressive outing,” Ukwenya said.
Nigeria is not only an underdog at the event, but is also paired with some of the best cricket-playing nations at the event viz: Australia, West Indies, and England. With the tone of the team’s first three matches almost already determined by the pedigree of the opponents, Vice President of the cricket federation, Mr. Uyi Akpata, says the NCF has set some bar for the players that they won’t like to make public, although he vouches on the team’s character.
“We have a team that has grown in confidence through their division two qualification last year. They went to the World Cup qualification event in Division 1 as an underdog like they are now and they grinded out results coming back with the sole ticket available. They are a team to be ignored at your peril,” Akpata said, adding, “We have watched them grow and developed, and I can assure you that these players have surprise up their sleeves.”
The closing batting in Nigeria’s last qualification match against Sierra Leone in Namibia last year that saw the entire team rush to the pitch in jubilation has amassed massive views on International Cricket Council’s Youtube channel – a testament to the fun, skillfulness and an element of surprise that could make the team matches rack up viewership when their matches get underway.
Of the team of 18 players penciled for the World Cup campaign, none is dispensable, according to Captain Sylvester Okpe.
“I have played the game at several levels and I can say that the present crop of players are such a wonderful bunch that none of the players can do without. I believe we will make some impact at the World Cup,” a confident Okpe said.He also alluded to the investment that the cricket federation has put into the team.
“We have practically been on training for the better part of 2019. The World Cup in January will be the ground for us to show the result of the many changes that the team has gone through since the qualifier early last year,” Okpe added.But irrespective of the performance in South Africa at the U-19 CWC, the federation, according to a former national team captain, Endurance Ofem, who also sits on the board of the federation, the team will form the core of the national team in the near future.
“Without taking anything away from the senior national team, the investment in the U-19 team provides us with a lot of options when next there is a national assignment. “We are not ruling out key players, who are the bedrock and will form good mentors to these youthful players, but they will bring a lot to the national team when the time comes and that time is very near,” Ofem said.
Sylvester Okpe, Taiwo Mohammed and Runsewe Sulaimon have tasted action at the senior level as fringe players during the recent T20 World Cup qualifier in the United Arab Emirates. Their experience may not be too pleasant but Ofem believes it will count for the future of their career.
“I differ in the opinion that they were exposed to the senior team prematurely. U-19 and the senior national teams are two different kettles of fish. If nothing, they know how to handle the bigger stage, which I think will count for the whole team in SA and when most of their teammates graduate to the senior team. In every way, the country wins,” the NCF board member added.
Nigeria matches to the Cricket World Cup with a renewed verve that this singular effort would be the tonic to jolt back to life and arouse enough domestic and international interest for a decade long impact. That is how critical the year 2020 means to cricket and its Nigerian federation.
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