The Gymkhana Club Ground in Nairobi will probably never have it as good as it did for a fortnight in October 2000. The only other moment which came close was when Kenya shocked Sri Lanka there in the 2003 World Cup. But it was a fleeting moment of glory for a venue which had been hosting cricket matches since the early 20th century. It certainly has never been the subject of such widespread attention like it was in those pleasantly warm days of October.
The cricket ground, though, had to catch up with the demands of the modernising impulse within the sport. The International Cricket Council chose it as the host for the second edition of the KnockOut Trophy. The tournament had been set up to generate funds for development projects in non-Test playing nations; Kenya followed in the footsteps of Bangladesh. Unlike the previous edition, both sides got a chance to participate in the competition too.
The Gymkhana Club ground’s facelift cost about $550,000, which was spent by the Kenya Cricket Association (as it was called then). The shining beacon was the world’s largest media centre but more importantly, the on-field conditions were afforded the utmost attention they required.
The ICC pitches consultant Andy Atkinson arrived in July to oversee the preparations. His chief objective was to inject life into the notoriously docile wickets at the Gymkhana Club Ground, a challenge to which he responded exceedingly well. Five pitches shared the burden of the ten matches played during the competition and none of them seemed ill-equipped for the task. Kenya’s problems with its severest drought in over a decade were shelved aside as the country sought to present itself as a host worthy of the tournament’s stature.
The political patronage for the tournament helped. On the tournament’s opening day, Kenya’s longest serving President till date, Daniel arap Moi, arrived on the ground to mark its symbolic inauguration. His suspect batting ability, however, came in the way as he missed a full toss and was bowled. But the spectacular cricket which followed brushed that moment away from the memory of most.
The pace and bounce off the wicket made for quick run-scoring; the shorter boundaries than usual helped too. The inaugural edition’s success had meant that all participating teams took this tournament seriously. The strongest squads were sent to vie for a winner’s cheque of $340,000, a slight improvement on what Australia had received for winning the World Cup the year past.
The ICC also decided to ditch the ambiguous title — it was called the Wills International Cup in 1998 — to more accurately reflect the tournament for what it was, a knockout competition. The scheduling was better too, with no team being made to play on successive days. Of course, the ICC again changed the format and the tournament name two years later but the knockout competition held a unique appeal on the cricket calendar. It is a prize that cricket should restore.
The nature of the format, however, ensured that Kenya’s on-field participation was over on the opening day. But that was not before a new official team song got a proper airing. Maurice Odumbe featured as the lead singer but failed to produce a similar hit on the field. For Kenya ran into India, which was prepared to sing some melodies of its own during the tournament.
However, half of the 8,000-capacity venue lay empty for the tournament opener as overpriced tickets kept the crowds away. In fact, the Kenya-India clash was among the better attended ones. Few locals demonstrated an interest in engaging with the tournament; South Asian expats provided the bulk of the spectators. In times of economic turmoil and with the unemployment rates absurdly high, cricket was an unnecessary distraction.
However, with the tournament being held only a year after the 1999 World Cup, there were several teams out there to prove a point. Five sides received a bye to the quarterfinals, with the performances at the tournament in England being the basis for the seedings in Nairobi. Pakistan fancied its chances of moving on from the crushing defeat it suffered in the World Cup final as it received a favourable draw; Australia and South Africa found themselves in the same half.
The Proteas’ excruciating exit after a tied semifinal against the eventual champion still stung hard. More importantly, it had been only six months since the match-fixing scandal had reared its ugly head. Shaun Pollock was assigned the duty to rehabilitate a team still reeling from the sudden departure of its influential leader Hansie Cronje.
Indeed, the shadow of match-fixing loomed large over the competition. Cricket was going through a crisis of credibility, a crisis some may argue it never recovered from. Even when the sport thrilled its admirers, the suspicion lingered. It was a disease with which cricket had to learn to live.
Probably the best antidote to its poor health was India and New Zealand’s run to the final, two sides which perennially underperformed when the going got tough. Their successful displays brought fresh optimism to the sport when it was most needed.
With the benefit of a long-term view, one can safely say that India made the most of the ground it broke in Nairobi. Although the Sourav Ganguly-led side eventually fell away in the final, it was in this tournament where the initial glimpses of a new team culture were revealed. A more confident and self-assured side was being developed under the leadership of Ganguly and coach John Wright.
The Indian skipper led from the front in Nairobi, finishing the tournament as the top-scorer with 348 runs at an incredible average of 116.00. His centuries in the semi-final and final were six-filled excursions as he made light of the South African and Kiwi bowling attacks. Indeed, Ganguly’s unbeaten 141 in the semi was then rated by his counterpart Shaun Pollock as the best innings he had ever seen.
But it was another left-hander who denied South Africa a chance to seek revenge over the Australians. In India’s quarterfinal against Steve Waugh’s men, a 19-year-old Yuvraj Singh produced a rollicking 80-ball 84. It was the first sighting of a batsman who would go on to make a name for himself by destroying opposition attacks. Yuvraj’s love affair with ICC events had begun.
In the same match, Zaheer Khan burnished his reputation as a young seamer meant for greater things. In Zaheer and Yuvraj, India found the reflection of a more spirited and composed side. The excellent fielding display against Australia made the possibilities seem even more exciting.
Crucially, after despatching Kenya, India batted first in the remaining matches. The side was a notoriously poor chaser back then and Ganguly must have felt overwhelmingly pleased when Stephen Fleming asked him to bat first in the title clash. It was India’s only second major final, after the 1983 World Cup, while the Kiwis had never featured in a match of such magnitude before.
However, New Zealand was undergoing a transformation of its own — albeit for only a short while. Its run to the final was a surprise occurrence as well. Before the tournament, Zimbabwe had defeated the Kiwis in an ODI series at home; only a year before that, Pakistan had breezed past Fleming’s side with a comfortable win in the World Cup semi. Furthermore, New Zealand was without the bowling services of Daniel Vettori, Dion Nash and even Chris Cairns in the quarters and semis.
Yet, unlikely figures stepped up. Shayne O’Connor produced the best bowling figures of the tournament to stymie Pakistan while Roger Twose struck consecutive fifties in the quarters and semis to take his half-century streak to five; Twose finished the tournament as the third-best ODI batsman in the world.
But in the highest scoring match of the tournament, the final, a more likely hero stepped up to the plate. Cairns had picked up a knee injury in the quarterfinal and he was declared fit only a day before the summit clash against India. The all-rounder’s return was a significant boost for the Kiwis. Cairns was the most economical bowler for his side as New Zealand once again slowed the opposition down in the second half of its innings. A prospective score of 300 did not even come close to being realised.
However, chasing 265 in a final was no easy proposition. Especially when half of the Kiwis side was dismissed for 132 in the 24th over. But Cairns and Chris Harris proceeded to surgically pick India’s challenge apart. The former stayed till the end to ensure the Kiwis got home with two deliveries to spare; Cairns had an unbeaten hundred to show for his strains. New Zealand would not be the eternal bridesmaid.
However, it took the Black Caps nine years to reach their next ICC final; in that time, India had played three more — winning one title (2007 World T20) and sharing another (2002 Champions Trophy). Even in the short-term, it was India that built on its impressive run to the final. Months later, Australia’s 16-match winning streak in Test matches was broken and a famous series win secured. The Kiwis, on the other hand, won only one out of their next 13 ODIs. The ICC KnockOut Trophy was to be a silver lining for Fleming’s men.
For Kenya, though, the tournament represented a lost opportunity. The $13 million profit never really led to the establishment of Kenya as one of cricket’s regular competitors; the team’s exciting run to the 2003 World Cup semifinal, sadly, was to be an outlier.
But, for that fortnight in Nairobi, a sport that was reeling from a match-fixing scandal believed it could regenerate itself in destinations hitherto underexplored. As the second edition of the ICC KnockOut Trophy drew to a close, that possibility shone in the distance. For a while, it did.
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Updated Date: May 29, 2017 14:45 PM