Sierra Leone batting for cricketing glory from ashes of war

Sierra Leone batting for cricketing glory from ashes of war

FREETOWN - Agence France-Presse
Sierra Leone batting for cricketing glory from ashes of war

A man plays cricket in Freetown at Kingtom Oval, Sierra Leone’s only cricket oval in this file photo. AFP photo

Packed with hard red dirt overlooked by a faded scoreboard, Sierra Leone’s only cricket oval is worlds away from the lush, carefully grassed grounds typically associated with the game.

Muddy pools around the edges of Kingtom Oval after a downpour, as a rag-tag group of young men, women, and children barely big enough to hold a bat, gather to warm up for cricket practice. But first: The daily battle of chasing teams of players off the pitch, a sign the football-mad nation, which zealously follows teams in the English Premier League, is not yet bowled over by the growing success of its cricketers.

“The footballers are here every time we want to play. Look at them! They are playing football right now whilst we are playing cricket!” says national team player Emmanuel Pessima, who is also chairman of the Kenemmanjane cricket club.

With the glaring footballers relegated to the outskirts of the field, the cricketers unfurl a strip of grubby green astro turf, torn in places, along a long slab of cement which forms the pitch.

While any fielder would think twice before diving and sliding to stop a cricket ball on such unforgiving terrain, it is from here that Sierra Leone’s players have edged their way up in rankings on the African continent.

Cricket has a rich history in the nation, where it was introduced by the British in the 19th century, and had a thriving league until war broke out in 1991.

War torn country
Kingtom Oval was “well-grassed” in the 1980s, says Beresford Bournes-Coker, chairman of the Sierra Leone Cricket Association. But during the devastating 11-year conflict which left 120,000 dead, the field, which belongs to an adjacent police station, became home to hundreds of refugees looking for safety.

The U-19 team defied expectations to reach the World Cup qualifier in Canada in 2009, but in a massive blow, they were refused visas to participate.

“Sierra Leone is being branded as the Afghanistan of Africa-- meaning that with nothing we’ve gone so far,” says Bournes-Coker, referring to the war-torn Asian nation’s recent successes in international cricket.

The country is trying to rope in Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast who have never played cricket and encourage them to join a tournament in Gambia in March 2013. “Hopefully by 2014 we are looking for, with all the facilities and with the playing standard raised, we should be able to apply for an associate membership” of the International Cricket Council, which governs the sport, Bournes-Coker said.