Reflecting on Nigeria’s 2020 and looking to 2021

Isaac Lockett has the opportunity to talk to Nigeria Cricket federation Adam Ukwenya about the developments that occurred during 2020 and a look into what the next 12 months may have in store.

Sulaimon Runsewe Nigeria
Sulaimon Runsewe of Nigeria celebrates his 50 runs against Japan (ICC)

Emerging Cricket recently had the opportunity to talk to Nigerian Cricket Federation (NCF) President Professor Adam Ukwenya about the progress made during 2020 and what 2021 may have in store for Nigerian cricket.

Turning the clocks back to January last year, the Nigerian U19 squad made history as the first cohort of Nigerian players to represent the country at a World Cup. During the tournament, there were many impressive moments including Nigeria gaining their first victory at a World Cup when the U19 team finished 15th after a win against Japan. However, as Ukwenya explained, ‘We came back from our first ever U19 World Cup appearance in SA in January to face The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown imposed to try and control it from March’. 

Nigeria U19s with Faf Du Plessis
Nigeria U19s with Faf Du Plessis (Photo: ICC)

The global pandemic, and the subsequent social restrictions, came at an unfortunate time for Nigerian cricket as ‘We were a week from travelling to Nairobi for the Africa Cricket Association Tournament before restrictions were imposed. We were also ready for our National Sports Festival, a multi-sports event which includes cricket.’ All had to be deferred as was ICC and other domestic tournaments. But despite the apparent difficulties of 2020, the NCF was still able to make impressive strides in their work to develop cricket and have ensured that 2021 has the potential to be a prosperous year for the West African country. 

The NCF looked to use the lockdown as an opportunity to develop the off-field planning further to ensure that when the action was able to resume cricket could come back stronger than ever. Ukwenya elaborated that ‘Right from the beginning of lockdown we reviewed our programmes, budgetary allocations and annual calendar of events and decided to maximise online resources to ensure 2020 didn’t all go to waste’. Based on some of the highlights presented by the president of the NCF, it is safe to say that the NCF did not let the momentum that had been built go to waste. 

Increased school cricket

One of the highlights that Ukwenya presented was the production of a ‘new strategic blueprint for accelerated growth which aims to increase involvement and participation of school children by 150,000-300,000 annually and sensitising the stakeholders of the game on how to manage and sustain the program’. Following the success of the Nigerian U19 team during the 2020 U19 World Cup, junior cricket appears to be a strong focus of the NCF for the foreseeable future as not only will it aid the development of those players involved with junior cricket, but it will have a direct effect on the success of the national side. To kick-start the new strategic programme, ‘We are waiting for delivery of 2000 sets of soft-ball equipment for school cricket from India’. If the programme is successful, it could continue to break down the barrier that currently prevents participation. 

Sulaimon Runsewe Nigeria
Sulaimon Runsewe of Nigeria celebrates his 50 runs against Japan (ICC)

The development of grass wickets 

The transition from astroturf to grass wickets is a significant change. Still, it appears to be necessary not only to host international cricket but also to develop players. The NCF understood this challenge and was one that was tackled head-on by the NCG during the year. When explaining how the NCF looked to build their grass-wickets, Ukwenya said ‘We had in the past not mastered the art of construction and maintenance of turf wickets. We approached the ICC for their Facility Consultant, Mr Andy Atkinson, who gave us a nine-week course on facility construction and maintenance. This service is now available to other Associates after the experiment worked with Nigeria. With online supervision by Andy Atkinson, we are almost through with the upgrade of three of our national ovals’. 

An online revolution

Nigerian Cricket became the centre of cricket’s news for a short while following the announcement of former Sri Lankan international Asanka Gurusinha as the country’s head coach who has been in his new position since 1st December 2020. However, the process of hiring the coach also broke new ground federation as the entire process was conducted online. This process included online ‘advertisement, shortlisting, interviews and contract signing’. Alongside the process of hiring Gurusinha, there was an increased use of online services, including Cricheroes, which was used to conduct player and team data analysis, and the attendance of webinars about a variety of topics including fan marketing/engagement. 

Asanka Gurusinha Nigeria (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation)

Working online has become the norm for many during 2020 across the globe but does represent unique challenges for organisations. When reflecting on the year, Ukwenya recalled that ‘The biggest lesson from 2020 was the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of using online resources to run our cricket. We will continue to build capacity to improve in this area in 2021’. 

A Look to the year ahead.

For many people, the turn of a new year represents an opportunity to set new goals and to assess the upcoming opportunities. Based on the conversation with Ukwenya, the NCF has clear goals and aims to make the most of a busy 2021 international calendar. 

On the domestic front, the ‘We planned for the restructuring of our domestic cricket as part of the accelerated growth programme. We will expect more from regional competitions and school cricket this year’. Due to the linear selection method of the NCF, the increased competitive action will have a direct impact on the national selection and with so many international matches scheduled each domestic tournament will be necessary for Nigeria’s cricketers. When talking about the upcoming domestic action, ‘We expect the rescheduled National Sports Festival to come up in Q1 Covid-19 permits. New talents are expected to be added to the Female National Squad. A useful development is the first-ever female club league run in the South-South region of the country about to start’.

Nigeria - North Central region U17's vs South West region u17 male team in action during the National U17 championship last year.
North Central region U17’s vs South West region u17 male team in action during the 2019 National U17 championship. (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation)

From the male and female domestic tournaments, the national selectors will see the players pushing for one of the national sides this year. With the U19s, male and female team all in action, there will be many opportunities. 

U19 men’s team 

Ukwenya provided an insight into how the under 19s team will be selected and developed; ‘We will start building the 2021 U19 Squad from the National U17 Tournament. There are boys over 17 years of age who were not part of the squad to Word Cup who will be eligible for selection as are also younger members of the World Cup Squad who may still be eligible. There is no doubt that useful lessons and experiences gained from developing and preparing the previous team will come in handy as we invest in fairly newer and younger boys’.

The NCF and Ukwenya did not lose the value of making their debut at an under 19 World Cup, and it was clear to the president that participation at the event had a positive impact on all of those involved.

‘There is almost an immediate impact from investments in the last U-19 boys who took us to our first-ever World Cup. Many of the boys returned from the World Cup with extra spring in their steps and are already challenging for senior caps … There is no doubt that useful lessons and experiences gained from developing and preparing the previous team will come in handy as we invest in fairly newer and younger boys,’ Ukwenya said.

Sylvester Okpe Nigeria
Sylvester Okpe during the U19 World Cup in South Africa, 2020 (Photo: ICC)

With Nigeria hosting the ICC African Under 19 Division 1 competition, it will see the hosts compete against Namibia, Uganda along with the top two teams from Division 2. This competition, which is scheduled to take place in September 2021, presents Nigeria with another chance of qualifying for their second appearance at an under-19 world cup, which is being held in the West Indies. 

When talking about players to watch out for the president highlighted that ‘Pacy Ncube Nwokike and Chidi Onwubualili look promising. Young but talented top-order batsmen like Paul Pam and Theophilus Jeremiah have shone through age-grade tournaments as allrounders such as Prosper Hussain. There are opportunities for a new generation to bring their talents to the fore and lay greater foundation for the future of Nigerian Cricket’.

Men’s and women’s national teams 

The employment of Gurusinha is expected to have a direct impact on both the men’s and women’s national teams. When focussing on the development of the men’s team, Ukwenya reflected that ‘We expect some immediate impact from the employment of Mr Asanka Gurusinha on the way our senior boys compete particularly with fitness, fielding and game management while we work on implementing long term high-performance strategies and promoting the culture of excellence he has proposed’. 

Samantha Agazuma in the Nigerian national team’s colours (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation)

The men’s team, along with competing in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup Africa Qualifier, which is also being held in Nigeria, will also be participating in the ACA T20. When talking about the tournament and its potential benefits, the president stated that ‘We hope to compete favourably in the ACA T20 Tournament deferred to possibly March 2021 as this will set the tone for expectations later in the year’. 

When moving to talk about the women’s team, Ukwenya said that ‘Our girls are expected to participate in Female Invitationals in Rwanda and Botswana in Q2, and these will prepare them for better outing in the 2021 ICC Women’s T20 Qualifiers’. 

Overall Reflections 

Based on the work of the NCF during 2020, 2021 has the potential to be an exciting year for cricket in Nigeria. One aspect that appears key to the development of the national teams will be the effect of Gurusinha. However, the balance of the focus on domestic and international expansion means that cricket will potentially grow. With the president acknowledging that ‘There’s no doubt we will need to do a lot more on marketing and sponsorship to improve our non-ICC revenue so as to meet the expected increases in activity and tournaments in 2021’, only time will tell how the off-field aspects of the NCF continue to develop.

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