Three years of planning paved Uganda’s road to World Cup | Cricket - Hindustan Times

Three years of planning paved Uganda’s road to World Cup

By, New Delhi
Dec 01, 2023 10:13 PM IST

The cricket team comprises mostly students and semi-professionals and there are just 60-odd players to choose from.

An “emotional rollercoaster” is how Brian Masaba describes the past fortnight for Uganda’s cricketers. He’s speaking over the phone on Thursday night, a historic one for Uganda’s skipper and his teammates after achieving what no team from his country had done in any sport: qualify for a World Cup at the senior level.

Uganda will be one of 20 teams embarking for the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean and United States in June 2024. PREMIUM
Uganda will be one of 20 teams embarking for the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean and United States in June 2024.

Having beaten Rwanda in Windhoek, Namibia, in their final game of the T20 World Cup Africa Region Qualifier on Thursday, Uganda will be one of 20 teams embarking for the marquee event in the Caribbean and United States in June 2024. That they overcame Zimbabwe (an ICC full member) and Kenya — countries with greater cricketing pedigree even if on the decline — in the qualifying campaign is illustrative of the magnitude of their achievement.

The qualification sparked scenes of raw emotion and unbridled joy among the Ugandan players, palpable in their song, dance and sheer euphoria on the outfield moments after the triumph. “We are all very excited as a group. Everyone is pumped up about the achievement. It’s a first for Uganda,” said skipper Masaba, a 32-year-old seamer who has played 53 T20Is. “We came into this tournament trying to seal a World Cup slot. We firmly believed that it was possible. We had put in a lot of work. We knew we had to beat one of the top teams. To actually come out here and achieve it is a different story. We are feeling a special kind of emotion right now.”

That Uganda is nothing more than a speck on the cricketing map with limited resources is stating the obvious. But it’s still important to lay out the bare facts – the team comprises mostly students and semi-professionals, there are just 60-odd players to choose from and no more than around 20 clubs in the whole country that play the sport. Masaba, leading the team since September 2021, works as a procurement manager in Kampala.

Yet if Uganda’s players will be rubbing shoulders with the world’s best in June, it’s owing to three years of planning and hard work. “The association in Uganda was very keen to get us here by organising a lot of games and tournaments. We have played maybe 40-50 T20Is over the last three years. It’s not a mistake that the team has done well in this tournament,” said Masaba.

The association’s efforts over the past couple of years to professionalise the game in Uganda by offering full-time contracts to 24 players have been crucial. The players, said Masaba, are making $200-500 a month on average due to these contracts.

“Much like any other sport in Uganda, the guys have to look for alternative sources of income. But the association has tried to ensure guys have contracts over the past couple of years. But we still have to work on the side to make ends meet,” Masaba said.

Uganda’s cricketers hope that their participation on the global stage can lead to a better future. “Look, this opens a lot of doors for cricket back home. It is going to popularise the sport in the country. Hopefully, some players can get T20 and T10 gigs. It puts Ugandan cricket on the map. It is a dream come true for the players. Just sharing a field with guys we have seen playing on television... hopefully we can interact and learn from the best,” Masaba said.

What’s the pathway for youngsters aspiring to play cricket in Uganda? “It's not the best structure but we appreciate what has been put together by the association. We don't have an Under-15 or U-17 team, but our U-19 team has been strong,” said coach Jackson Ogwang, pointing to Uganda playing three U-19 World Cups including the previous edition in the Caribbean in 2022. “All the players come through the school structure. They play a schools league through which we select for the U-19 team. The teams that play in the schools league are basically made up of kids from the age of 12 to 17. The best-performing schools converge to play in the schools national league.”

For sport to take a backseat in a country battling poverty — it has never qualified for a FIFA World Cup despite football being the national game — is perhaps understandable. While cricket remains on the margins, the game has had a presence in the former British colony since the late 19th century. It must be noted that the East African team that played the inaugural World Cup in 1975 had a mix of players from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

“Cricket goes back a long way. There was also a strong Indian presence in the country. There was also a strong effort by indigenous Ugandans to start their own clubs. There are five turf wickets in the country. There are 6-7 artificial surfaces as well. I would say there are 10-12 grounds in the country,” said Masaba.

Glance through the Ugandan squad and the strong Asian presence is apparent. The top run-getter in the qualifiers was Riazat Ali Shah while the top wicket-taker was Alpesh Ramjani. “Asians form close to 40% of the teams that play in the national league,” said Ogwang.

“We have five teams owned by Asians out of the 10 teams that participate in division one. In division two, there are 11 teams. Five are again Asian teams.”

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    Vivek Krishnan is a sports journalist who enjoys covering cricket and football among other disciplines. He wanted to be a cricketer himself but has gladly settled for watching and writing on different sports.

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