No time like the present for Kenyans to make mark
TIME stands still in Africa. Unlike Hong Kong, where every minute is precious and means money, out here in Kenya, the sand of the hour glass runs . . . and runs.
So it is hardly surprising that cricket, which to the Chinese would seem to be a waste of time, is a sport that has caught the imagination of the African - much to the delight of cricket administrators in Kenya.
As old Kenyan cricket hand, Jasmer Singh put it: ''Time is nothing. The African has plenty of spare time and they don't mind spending it playing cricket. What's more they are very sports-minded.'' Cricket, a throwback from the days of Livingstone and British colonial rule, is taking root across the dark continent, especially in Kenya, honoured to be the host of the first International Cricket Council (ICC) Trophy tournament to be held outside Europe.
The sound of leather and willow still plays second fiddle to football, the universal game, but Jasmer is satisfied with the amount of headway cricket has made in Kenya.
''Come on. No sport can really compete against football, which has the advantage of being a very cheap sport to play. But cricket has a strong following amongst the indigenous population,'' said Jasmer, a leader figure in the organisation of the ICC Trophy competition.
It was not always like that. For a long time, the game was regarded as elitist, played only by Englishmen. Images of gentlemen leisurely playing in their baggy flannels, the sun dipping low across the savannah, ladies sipping long, tall glasses of lemonade and being waited upon by black servants, flit across the mind.
Images not scoffed at by Jasmer. ''It was like that early this century.'' But then the game took a turn, with another breed of expatriates, the Asians - and mainly of Indian origin - starting to play the game.
This, according to Jasmer, was the turning point in Kenya. ''Suddenly the African found he could also be involved in the game. Using dustbins as wickets, the two communities mixed on the streets, playing a game which for so long had been out of their reach.
''The real African cricket emerged from the streets. After our Independence in 1963, all barriers were broken and the game became fully integrated in Kenya.
''What was foreign, has now become a part of life. All clubs are now mixed. We have a strong infrastructure which is very much evident when you see the composition of the current Kenyan national team,'' said Jasmer, who opened the batting for Kenya in thelate '50s.
When he was taking strike at the wicket, Kenya were part of East Africa, along with Uganda, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. When East Africa took part in the first World Cup, by invitation, in England, Jasmer was the manager.
Having been actively involved on all fronts, it was perhaps apt that he was widely responsible for seeing Kenya break away from East Africa and become a separate entity.
''The cricket standard of our partners was very low. What's more, the team was selected on a quota basis. This led to frustration on our part and we decided to quit. There was no acrimony in the split.'' That came in 1981. And with Kenya playing under their own flag at the 1982 mini-World Cup, they further boosted the popularity of the game throughout the country.
Outside the playing field, the Kenyan Cricket Association (KCA) is a financially secure national sports body. They did not ask for government support to stage this tournament, the biggest international sports event - barring the 1990 All-African Games - to be held in Kenya.
While sponsors ABN-AMRO bank have chipped in with half the US$100,000 needed for the tournament, the KCA has raised the rest.
Will all the time, money and effort spent on organisation, will this tournament be worth it? ''Definitely,'' says Jasmer. ''It will enhance the popularity of cricket here. The awareness will increase.'' Kenya's two television networks carry comprehensive reports every night as do the three English language daily newspapers which give wide coverage to the sport.
And if Kenya finish as one of the top three teams at the end of this tournament on March 6, Jasmer's faith will be vindicated.
The hosts are supremely confident that they will be one of the three teams joining the 'giants' at the next World Cup to be held in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1996.
If nothing else motivates the Kenyans, money will. A group of cricket lovers, calling themselves ''The Friends of Kenya Cricket'' have pledged they will give US$1,000 to each member of the team - half-a-year's average wage in Kenya - if they win the tournament. In addition, incentives have been offered even if they finish second or third, as well as many other individual cash awards.
Apart from having a talented squad - they beat one of the pre-tournament favourites Holland by four wickets in a friendly three days ago - the Kenyans also have the edge when it comes to home conditions.
The altitude, at 6,000 feet above sea level, and the heat, 30 degrees Celsius in the shade, have had visiting teams gasping for breath.
Jasmer predicted: ''We have an excellent chance of finishing in the top three, if not winning this tournament.'' So, for a country which inherited the game from colonial masters, the wait is nearly over. The time of reckoning has arrived.
Time will stand still in Nairobi as Kenya bids to rub shoulders with the cricketing world's elite.