The last time I was in Rwanda was in 2017 for the official opening of the Gahanga Cricket stadium but even with such an amazing ground, many sceptics (including myself) thought they lacked the numbers to utilise the facility to its full potential.
Fast forward to 2019 and Rwanda cricket is making huge strides in terms of growth of their numbers. The practice nets at the Gahanga cricket stadium are full of youngsters running in and bowling to batsmen every afternoon. The impact of the facility on the community around Gahanga goes beyond just cricket as Cricket Builds Hope (the charity that built and maintains the facility) has designed a program to teach women some vocational skills that they can help them in their everyday life.
When Charles Haba and a few friends reignited the spirit of cricket in Rwanda in 2006, the reality on show today was only a dream, the only available space to play was at the vocational government run IPRC. Once the nation was chosen to host the U20 Africa football championship however, cricket had to be sacrificed to pave way for construction of a new football stadium. The government did provide an alternative ground in the same area but it needed a lot of work to make it playable. Charles Haba then handed the Rwanda Cricket Association Presidency over to Eddie Mugarura who continues to drive the ambition of RCA.
The blue print for the future of Rwanda was picked from Uganda who were running one of the most successful development programs. Davis Turinawe from Uganda was hired as the RCA’s first development officer and he was followed by Joshua Mwanja from Uganda who is the current development manager for cricket in Rwanda.
Fast forward to 2019, I was part of the management of the Uganda School select boys squad, and part of me thought we would trounce the development sides from Rwanda. However, I was very far from being right. In the past, any team from Uganda would run over teams in Rwanda, but now that gap is closing fast, with the junior players showing some confidence – you could even say a touch of arrogance – and no fear, as they faced their supposedly ‘superior’ neighbours.
Rwanda assembled their U19 side as well as their U23 sides, and both were very competitive. The youngsters exhibited a lot of skill especially with the ball and in the field. It was noticeable that most of them were bowling pace something not unusual given the natural height of the Rwandans. The batting still has some work to do but that is a problem not just for Rwanda, but the region as a whole.
The stand out for me was the desire to win that was exhibited by both teams. Despite losing to the Ugandan School Select side, the Rwandans always looked dejected – instead of being content because the opponent was slightly better. In the tight T20 game, the U23 side was visibly very disappointed that they didn’t get over the line and some tough questions were asked about the character of their batters.
Both sides were also being handled by young coaches, RCA has a clear vision and is working hard to develop the skills required to underpin their future success by instilling responsibility in the younger generations. Their progress is impressive and they are closing in on its neighbours – and this can only be positive for (East) African cricket. The deliberate decision to invite teams and play against their junior players can only make them better and before too long I predict there will be a new peer in the region to take on Kenya and Uganda.
Rwanda cricket now has at least two grounds to use with Gahanga Cricket Stadium a grass wicket surface that can host international events while the old ground at IPRC is a turf surface that will be upgraded to grass as early as next year. There are 21 cricket clubs comprising both men and women teams who compete in the local leagues. The quality of the league has been boosted by Ugandans who are invited by the local teams to help them in their quest for glory.
The improvement in cricket in Rwanda should be a warning to neighbours Kenya and Uganda not to rest on their laurels. Just like Nigeria surprised everyone at the U19 qualifiers in Namibia this year – to qualify for the country’s first global cricket event – Rwanda is on its way up as well.