The Rapid Rise of Nigerian Cricket and Becoming ICC’s Priority Member: A Chat with Uyi Akpata

Emeka Igwilo, William Glenwright and Uyi Akpata (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation Facebook)

“Growing up, when I was playing cricket, there were no female players. Nationwide, only twenty schools even featured cricket as an option. Now just in my province alone, around 30 schools are actively playing the sport. And in the whole country, it numbers over 100 schools,” states a proud Uyi Akpata, President of the Nigerian Cricket Federation (NCF).

He is describing the dramatic growth and transformation that cricket has undergone over the last four years in the populous West African nation of 230 million (estimated). “Female cricket is thriving. There are vastly more playing opportunities, improved structures, frameworks and developmental pathways these days for aspiring players. The awareness of the game has increased significantly.”

This unsurprisingly hasn’t gone unnoticed at ICC headquarters either. ICC Africa Regional Manager Patricia Kambarami has recently become a strong advocate of Nigerian cricket. And earlier this year, on a Cricket World Cup Trophy tour through Lagos, ICC’s General Manager of Development William Glenwright referred to Nigeria as “a priority member for us.”

Emerging Cricket sat down with Akpata and NCF General Manager Emeka Igwilo for a fascinating deep dive into the phenomenal growth of Nigerian cricket, the governance and structures that have facilitated it and the promising future of the sport in the West African region.

Origins

Like most places in the Commonwealth, cricket was first introduced to Nigeria by British colonial administrators in the 19th century. The Nigerian team (consisting entirely of British colonialists) made its international debut against the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1904. However, it took until 1957 for Nigeria to form a unified national cricket association. And then another 45 years to join the International Cricket Council (ICC) as an Associate member in 2002. The glacial pace of growth and development is understandable in the light of cricket never catching on with the locals and remaining an extremely niche sport. That is, until now!

For Akpata, his own personal cricketing journey started at the age of ten through admission to an elite school. “Growing up, cricket was being played in very selected schools with a British background. I was lucky to go to one. Plus, my father played cricket, so that helped. I played it at school and golf during the holidays. But when I joined university, I had to pick one sport and I chose cricket. All the values and attributes like teamwork, discipline and integrity that have helped me subsequently in life came through cricket,” he smiles.

After finishing his university studies, Akpata joined PWC Nigeria as a fresh accounting graduate. He has enjoyed a long and successful professional career there for the past forty years, although a busy schedule left little time for cricket. But five years ago, a fortuitous policy change at work allowed him to get reacquainted with the sport once more. “The policy encourages most partners to be involved in extracurricular activities that create societal impacts. I have set up this foundation called ‘Promoting Ethics through Sports’ and 10% of anything I get goes into that fund and cricket is the main beneficiary,” Akpata says. He got elected to the position of NCF President in 2021.

As for General Manager Emeka Igwilo, he’s a NCF veteran, having been with the organisation for many years. “I first played cricket in 1986, when the game was introduced to our high school. I became captain of my school team and got the opportunity to represent my state. I was made the regional development officer and that’s how I joined NCA. As GM this is now my fifth year,” he says.

Grassroots Development and Participation

Nowadays, cricket in Nigeria is far more popular, structured and organised compared to the time when Akpata and Igwilo first got into the sport. At school level, around 100,000 to 200,000 kids actively participate. Additionally, the NCF organises national U-15 championships on an annual basis, where about 36 teams (including male and female) take part. The same structure is present for the U-17s as well. “We have a very healthy system in place for the youth at a grassroots level,” says Akpata.

At a senior level, there are active leagues in six provinces with around 200 to 250 players taking part in each one. “We provide them with plenty of different options of getting into the sport; there is softball cricket, a modified game and of course the hard ball game. Our current goal is to reach out to 250,000 new people each year to make them aware of cricket, which is the first stage.”

West Africa Trophy Final at TBS Oval, Lagos (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation)

He is keenly aware of the importance of growing the game from the grassroots. “If my objective was just to qualify for the T20 World Cup, I probably would have achieved that by going to the UK and getting the British Nigerian players involved to play for the national team. But to me that’s short-sighted thinking. I want to build the Nigerian cricket brand organically through an emphasis on homegrown talent. When you look at our national team now, the average age of players is around four years younger compared to the other teams in the qualifier,” declares the NCF President.

The focus on promoting youth has paid off for the senior national team with youngsters like Peter Aho, Prosper Useni and Ridwan Abdulkareem making their mark at the qualifier. 17-year-old allrounder Useni in particular is a precocious talent, impressing onlookers with his big hitting skills and lively left-arm medium pace. “The province he comes from, they won the U-15 youth games four years ago. He is such a natural talent. For players like him, I am looking at the next phase of high-performance initiatives; I’m in talks with a couple of people in India and South Africa. Hopefully we can arrange tours or special camps there to develop these youngsters further,” states Akpata.

Prosper Useni was a major standout for Nigeria at the qualifier (Photo: ICC)

The players are also getting paid, having signed contracts in April. “Most of our cricketers can earn more in the course of a year compared to university graduates working in the civil sector. The minimum federal wage in Nigeria is $44 a month. We pay the contracted players (20 male and 20 female) around $100 – $150 per month. And when you factor in qualification bonuses and match fees, they are earning almost five times more than the minimum wage. We also are paying a competitive wage to our high-performance coach Steve Tikolo,” he further adds.

Domestic Structures and Facilities

Domestically, the cricket season runs from October to May before breaking for the monsoonal rains which lash the nation from June to September every year. While the main national league is currently run as a 40 overs competition, Akpata is keen to start a 50 over tournament as well. “We want to provide kids with the proper experience of playing ODI cricket. Looking at our T20I ranking now (38), we fall just outside the Challenge League cut-off. Our aim is to close the gap and qualify for the Challenge League in the next cycle.”

There are also grand plans of launching a national T20 tournament called the ‘Nigerian Super League’ from next year. “We want to model it on the IPL. It will be a month-long event with both male and female categories,” he says.

Facilities wise, Nigeria currently boasts seven quality turf wickets located strategically around the nation. There are two turf pitches in capital Lagos, two in Benin city, two more in Abuja and lastly a solitary one in Kaduna. According to General Manager Igwilo, this is a big competitive advantage that he wants to maximise over other Associates globally. “It helps our players acclimatise more easily and better prepares them for international cricket.”

Popularity of Cricket and ICC Global Award

Despite its rapid growth, cricket faces an uphill battle against older, more established sports. Football is a national obsession; the representative team ‘Super Eagles’ have achieved great success on the international stage with multiple World Cup appearances and three Africa Cup of Nations titles. Basketball, Athletics, Boxing and Dambe, an indigenous form of martial art, also enjoy widespread support.

However, Akpata assures me that cricket is growing in prominence in the mainstream consciousness. “If you ask the average Nigerian on the street, cricket is probably the fifth sport in terms of popularity. But if you want to talk about our target audience, which are the elites, we come in third after football and basketball. We are very specific in our goals; we want to be the best organised sport in Nigeria.”

Cricket in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city and NCF headquarters (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation

At present, watching cricket on TV can be bit of a mission for locals. It doesn’t feature on any of the national free to air channels and is only available for viewing through subscription to DStv’s premium package, which carries the SuperSport cricket channel. Igwilo concedes that the hefty price tag of DStv Premium puts it beyond the reach of most Nigerians. “People still find their own ways of watching the games through pirated streams. We also livestream a lot of domestic matches in partnership with CricHeroes and PitchVision,” he states.

One of NCF’s major accomplishments has been winning ICC’s ‘100% Cricket Female Cricket Initiative of the Year’ award in 2022. It was a recognition of their efforts at successfully introducing the game to 20,000 girls in the Sharia Law governed state of Zamfara in the country’s northwest. “When we first took cricket to Zamfara, a lot of girls were keen to play. But it was a challenge, the parents were initially hesitant. They only allowed it because the girls could play wearing a hijab. We are investing a lot in plastic bats and stumps, so that anyone can play it and it can be a street game, the way it is in India,” opines Igwilo.

Cricket introduction session in Zamfara State (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation)
African Games and LA28 Inclusion

Recently, cricket on the African continent received a further boost from its inclusion in next year’s African Games. Set to be hosted by Ghana, the 2024 African Games will be the first time that cricket is featured at that event. With the top eight highest ranked African nations taking part, it is good news for Nigeria who can compete for medals in both male and female categories.

“Judging by the way we performed at the qualifier, people can see that we are not too far behind the East African region. We defeated Tanzania comfortably and almost pulled out a win over Kenya. Uganda on the other hand is clearly ahead of us but over the next few years, that gap can be closed,” says the NCF President.

The Nigerian senior men’s team poses for a photo (Photo: Nigeria Cricket Federation)

It is cricket’s inclusion in the LA 2028 Olympics however, which has proved to be the real gamechanger for Nigerian cricket. “Everybody in Nigeria whether it’s the sporting bodies, the ministers and his predecessors always use us an example of being the best in terms of development. But we were always being categorised as a non-scoring sport by the political establishment because cricket is not in the Olympics. Now finally we have become fully recognised by the government. I can’t stress how important that is. We can request the government for facilities and access to schools,” states an ecstatic Akpata.

Future of Nigerian Cricket

Lastly, the conversation turns to discussion of NCF’s long-term strategic plans. Akpata is pleased with the additional governance controls he has brought into the organisation, similar to what’s in place at PWC. “At the governance level previously, we were poor. There were questionable activities around financial controls, so we weren’t always the favourite child of the ICC. But that’s completely changed now. Going on my finance and consulting background, we have put in place twenty initiatives which we have classified as Targets T20,” he chuckles.

“In terms of performance broadly, we want to become one of the top three teams in Africa. Of course, South Africa is miles ahead. But by 2026 we want to be in the mix with Zimbabwe and Namibia. We want to tap into alternative revenue sources in addition to the ICC grant and become self-sustainable. We want to create exciting career opportunities for different people within the cricketing ecosystem, from the umpires, the coaches to the players,” he continues further.

Most of all, Akpata wants to fully realise the potential identified by ICC in labelling Nigeria as a high priority member alongside USA.

“Working with the ICC as partners, my personal vision is looking beyond Nigeria. I want to drive that growth through West Africa and then get the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa involved in playing cricket. I want to re-establish a regional union where we have a memorandum of understanding with all West African cricket unions like Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Ghana to collaborate in different areas. In our specific subregion, we want to popularise cricket and make it the second most popular sport after football.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. wonderful, in-depth interview..
    really pleased to read all of this and see the growth of the game in Nigeria, and by extension in Africa too..
    may other countries follow in Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda’s footsteps.

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