By Denis Musali
The Ugandan flag will be among the 16 flags at the 2022 U-19 World Cup in West Indies, this is the 3rd time that Uganda has qualified for the junior global showpiece after achieving the same feat in Bangladesh 2004 and Srilanka 2006.
The baby cricket cranes have been close to qualification in the past especially in 2017 in Nairobi but the cricket gods denied them a ticket to Newzealand with the hosts Kenya overcoming a big Net Run Rate to claim the only available ticket to the World Cup on the final day.
However, this time fortune found a prepared Ugandan side that wasn't going to let their opportunity slip away. The side that went to Rwanda had only four players who had previously tested cricket at that level, Captain Pascal Murungi, Vice-Captain Munir Ismail, Juma Miyagi, and Ronald Opio. The team's technical bench of Ivan Thawithemwira and Robinson Turinawe was also new at this level but had the wise head of Team Manager Rokani Slyvester for wise counsel since he had been at the previous qualifier in 2019.
Ivan Thawithemwira the third man to take Uganda to the World Cup knew that it was never going to be an easy journey and talked about their preparation and expectations before the tournament.
I felt if we executed the disciplines we had been working on, we would triumph. Covid was a major challenge. We lost time (but now with hindsight, maybe it was actually a blessing in disguise. we saw the Hand of God in all our campaign.), The constant unpleasant covid tests, limited access to training grounds as all national teams were engaged around that period. We had to train at the hockey grounds for a period of time before hitting the nets and main ground.
The opening game loss to Namibia nearly derailed the dream, Uganda was bundled out for 125 that the Namibians chased down with no fuss in a game that left the Ugandans far from West Indies. However, Uganda was played back into the tournament in a fortuitous manner by Tanzania who defeated Namibia the very next day. The round-robin nature of the tournament meant that Tanzania had done Uganda a favor by defeating a side that had beaten them therefore Uganda only needed to take care of Tanzania whenever they met to ensure that they book their ticket to the West Indies.
Coach Ivan Thawithemwira reflects on the situation the team was in and what kept them focussed on the ultimate prize.
"A lot of faith in God and in what we had prepared ourselves for. We trusted what we had practiced, and we just needed an opening, then we would pounce. Fortunately, Tanzania gave us that opening when they played against Namibia and beat them. We never lost faith in God and how we had prepared ourselves.To be honest, we never focused on maths too much. We, rather, focused on playing our best game, each and every day. We knew the math would then go out of the window if we did that. At least as a coach that's what I wanted the boys to focus on; our own game "
A big win against hosts Rwanda a game in which Cyrus Kakuru notched a personal milestone of scoring a century ensured that the baby cricket cranes stayed in touch with their rivals and this was followed up with another win against Nigeria. Nigeria had defeated Uganda at the 2019 Qualifiers in Namibia en route to their maiden World Cup appearance but the side that achieved that feat was very different from the one that showed up in Kigali. Despite being at the 2020 U-19 World Cup Nigeria lost most of the side that achieved that feat to the senior side and the new players struggled at the highest level of junior cricket.
With both sides locked on the same number of points but Tanzania the unbeaten side, the odds were stacked against Uganda who had to win but also achieve a superior net run-rate to that of Tanzania and Namibia. Uganda pulled out all the stops on the final day of the tournament skittling out Tanzania for a paltry 52 and then chasing it down inside 10 overs to tick all the requirement boxes for them to book their ticket to the global showpiece in West Indies in 2022. A win that was achieved against all odds by a very young side that overcame the pressure and other factors to ink their names in the history of Ugandan sports.
Team Captain Pascal Murungi won the MVP award of the tournament, he brilliantly led from the front with both bat and bowl and his leadership rubbed off well on his team.
"I am exremely proud of what my teammates and i were able to achieve, playing at the World Cup is the pinnacle of our careers and we want to go the World Cup and give our absolute best. It has taken us 15 years to go back to the World Cup therefore we are going to put in the hard yards to make everyone in Uganda very proud"
A phenomenal effort from the baby cricket cranes to clinch Uganda's third appearance at the U-19 World Cup in the process of exorcising the demons of 2017. Coach Ivan Thawithemwira believes this is an achievement not just for cricket but tells the story of the potential of the nation if it is properly harnessed.
First of all, it shows we don't lack talent at all for any sport and this victory opens our eyes to that fact Cheptegei, Kiprotich, etc are further testimony to that. We come from very modest backgrounds, lacking all the world-class facilities, technology, and maybe prowess in many parts, yet we still produce world-beaters. We just need to recognize that as a nation, aggressively embrace this gift of tremendous athleticism God gave us, organize and harness it, then exploit it. (UAE exploits sun and sand, Egypt exploits the Nile, Singapore exploits their human resource, Kenya, our neighbors, exploited distance running). I think we have the "shortest" cut to international recognition as a nation if we exploit our sports. So, to answer this question, as a nation, it means we shall have an opportunity to be seen at the apex of global sports. Every TV will be on us, tourism can be boosted and as a result, the economy will be taken care of. It also means, as a cricket board, we have a chance to even further enhance our credentials. We need to start planning for the next qualifiers now so that we are constantly qualifying for the world cup. It also means we shall be exposed to world-class facilities, organizations, and institutions, which we can learn and even make valuable partnerships with.
The global showpiece will be held in the first quarter of 2022 with January/February the most likely date for the event. This opportunity should inspire a whole generation of cricketers throughout the country as the game continues to grow.