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NCF Super four women league: Edo explores cricket as pathfinder in sports development

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In Nigeria, football is acknowledged as the people’s number one sport. Although the Europeans introduced it into the country at the same time as cricket, football has dominated the people’s fancy such that other games are forced to look in from afar.

However, those who know have started looking at cricket as the sport that could drive genuine grassroots sports development in Nigeria.

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Recently, Nigeria’s 105 years record-breaking cricket U-19 World Cup qualification opened a new vista for the game among its youth, presenting the sport as an easy reach for sports development experimentation.

Before the U-17 World Cup in 2019, Nigeria’s cricket was not reckoned with in Africa because it was languishing in the second tier of the continent’s league. Nigeria was far from those expected to cause any stir or pick the World Cup ticket before the World Cup kicked off in 2019.

But the country’s game in the hands of Professor Adams Ukwenya led Nigeria Cricket Federation (NCF) showed at the championship why it is rated as one of the fastest developing among its peers by snatching the World Cup ticket. That jinx-breaking feat has opened up new possibilities and developmental models that can be stretched, explored, rinse, and repeated across the board. And this is what the Edo State government has leveraged through the Sports Commission that is led by Godwin Dudu-Orumen.

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Recently, Dudu-Orumen, a lawyer and journalist, explained why Edo has adopted the cricket model in its pursuit of excellence in grassroots sports development.

“Cricket in Nigeria today is an interesting case, the game’s response to developmental efforts in the state has been exceptional. First, it has to do with the passion, focus, and innovation that has been displayed by the team running the game in Edo State and the willingness to run with developmental guidelines cascaded from the government.

“Second, I guess because they have within them a lot who have a genuine grasp of the game’s local challenges. It was easy to come up with a model that caught-on for the game. We must admit that what they have can be improved upon and transposed to other sports,” Dudu-Orumen.

Edo State has shown interest in using sports and its values as a touchpoint for social, economic, and even structural revival in the state.

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Governor Godwin Obaseki has consistently posited that beyond active engagement, statistics of the state’s performance in sports over the years put it in an unusual advantage to lay a lasting structural reform around sports that can benefit its people and the entire country both in the short and long run.

Dudu-Orumen says the story of hosting the National Sports Festival was hinged on the many-layered advantages that are embedded for the state and how it can be used as a developmental tool for other aspects of the economy.

“Governor Obaseki is very focused on tapping into the power of sports that is why we have made the level of investments we made and also been steadfast despite the odds presented by the pandemic,” he added.

But, while uncertainty looms around the activation of the larger sporting goal, there has been quiet experimentation with a number of sports internally on the side, one of which is Cricket.

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According to Dudu-Orumen, “cricket came easy for us, Edo State has some legacies around the game and some structures, and we just needed to revamp. We have latent cricket power that we tapped into. But I guess the biggest positives for the game for us in Edo was the strength of manpower available especially that of the current Chairman, Uyi Akpata, and the team he assembled, their vision and experience for grassroots development, ties perfectly into what we have set as agenda.

“The state had an interest in Football, Boxing, Rugby, Athletics, Golf, and a few others that we can use for our developmental modeling, but cricket has been far more available and cheaper because of the commitment, passion, and alignment the Edo State Cricket Association had.”

During the U-19 World Cup qualification campaign by the developmental team that Nigeria presented, only four players were from Edo State.

Two years down the line and Edo State Sports Cricket Association (ESCA) backed by the government alone can field a national team of teenage cricketers that are ready to take on the world.

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Chairman of Edo State Cricket Association, Uyi Akpata, who is also NCF’s vice president, is acknowledged as one of the drivers of the new way in Edo State. Akpata has brought administrative insight and experience from his different turfs, including his position as a former captain of the golf section Ikoyi Club 1938 in Lagos, the biggest membership club in sub-Sahara Africa, to the quest to make Edo Nigeria’s sports hub.

Akpata says it was not that the state came out to dominate, but that the impact of the two years of focused investment and support by the government through the Sports Commission is beginning to yield fruits.

“The government and some state-based sports philanthropists, especially PETS Foundation has come to our aid, because some parts of the project need constant resources and facilitation which no aspect of the state is equipped with for now.

“Our first call was developing our own unique programme and roadmap with all the projected benchmarks and timelines. We were very fortunate to have great resources from the government and support from the Sports Commission who were our direct report,” he said.

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With the right tools, the state empowered the ESCA to adopt Edo Boys High School as the first center for the experimental Cricket High-Performance Center, which is the first in the country.

“We needed to use that facility as our rallying point for the state Cricket revamp,” Uyi added.

The high-performance center, which Deputy Governor, Philip Shaibu, commissioned last year has simultaneously become a national asset as the NCF has adjudged it the best in the country following the upgrade works currently going on all major cricket ovals across the country.

“Beyond the High-Performance Center, in Edo State, we set out to break the jinx around standard turf wicket construction in the country. This limitation has capped our talent development and the myth that we only needed some engineering sophistication to get it delivered in the country. So for a long time, the best turfs have always been of concretes which has hampered our play once we take our players for international events,” Uyi revealed.

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He added that during the lockdown, there was a six-week online training with some turf experts from ICC, which culminated in the development of homegrown solutions for the age-long problems.

“We had the support of the state and the Sports Commission and today what we developed has turned the state into the center for cricketing excellence. And we are working with other states to replicate these solutions now. The Unilag (University of Lagos) Oval and the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS) Oval are adopting our solutions and should be open soonest,” he added.

For some time to come, apart from the Edo State team and developmental purpose, the Edo Boys High School High-Performance center would be the rallying point for all national events and teams, Akpata said.

In agreement with Akpata, Dudu-Orumen said: “If we want to conditions our national cricket players for future international events, Governor Obaseki has made the state the place to be through this developmental project. And that is what we intend to achieve with other sports as well.”

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Expounding on the implications of the state’s strategic move through cricket, the vice-chairman of the state’s Cricket Association, who oversees operations at the High-Performance Center, Abraham Oviawe, says the level of progress achieved is hugely underrated.

“At the last National U-7 Boys and Girls Championship, which the national body understandably hosted on the facility, the winning teams for both categories were predominantly home groomed players.

“These are new players that were just pure discoveries from the state programme. We also have a record-breaker, a teenage girl, Piety Lucky, who recorded a century during the event. These are not flukes. It is the result of a well-orchestrated sports agenda,” he said.

Apart from the turf wicket and the growing school-wide cricket campaign, the state runs two of the most active leagues in the country, The Edo State Cricket League and the South-South Women League. The latter is the first attempt at organising a women league in West Africa.

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The league factor has grown the developmental potential and has opened up the state further as the hub for talents hunting, nurturing, and expressions.

According to Oviawe, “We have had some electrifying moments here throughout the leagues. The learning have been tremendous, but most importantly, our path for a structured cricket development has never been clearer through the support of Governor Obaseki’s agenda and Barrister Dudu-Orumen for his depth of purpose”

The first edition of the South-South Women League will end with a photo-finish Super Four this weekend and most of the players on parade are either first-team players of the national team or some that already have invites for trials, as well as some undiscovered talents waiting to be spotted.

Nigeria again will be vying this year for spots at the U-19 World Cup, with qualifiers already scheduled for Abuja in October 2021. There are two other World Cup attempts by the men and women national teams too on cards later in the year. The odds are that Nigeria will pick at least one of the final tickets, but the secret sauce may be what is served this weekend when the fireworks for the Super Four for the inaugural women league descends on the Edo Boys High School Cricket High-Performance center in Benin City.

Read the remaining part of the article on www.guardian.ng

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