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 water 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 footballers 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 west African nation, where it was introduced by the British in the late 19th century, and had a thriving club and schools league until war broke out in 1991.
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 and thousands maimed by rebels, the field, which belongs to an adjacent police station, became home to hundreds of refugees looking for safety.
While cricket structures fell apart, the game did not die, and it was the country’s wildly popular U-10 Barracks League which “kept the momentum going”.
Mostly made of up of policemen’s children, the league has provided the majority of the country’s cricketers, many of whom in turn joined the force.
While the children’s games still whip up the most fervour, it is those who grew up during the war who became members of the under-19 team which in 2009 defied expectations to reach the Cricket World Cup qualifier in Canada.
But, in a massive blow to the team, they were refused visas to participate.
In 2010 Sierra Leone moved up to Africa’s Division Two, also that year winning an award from the African Cricket Association for the most improved cricketing standards on the continent.
“Sierra Leone is being branded as the Afghanistan of Africa – meaning that with nothing we’ve gone so far “
“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.
Sierra Leone hopes to bring the same fervour for the game seen in other parts of the continent to mostly francophone west Africa.
The country is trying to rope in Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast who have never played cricket and encourage them to join a regional tournament in Gambia in March 2013.
Cricket has never caught on amongst the French and its former colonies but this may slowly be changing with countries such as Mali playing organised cricket since 2005.
“For the east and southern African countries, they have lots of regional tournaments, which is why they perform better and it has been a learning curve for them and we must try to replicate the same in West Africa,” said Bournes-Coker.
Local sports journalists held a workshop recently to avoid being stumped by cricket jargon, where a “duck” is not an aquatic bird, a “bail” has nothing to do with being released from jail and players may yell out “Howzat?!” from time to time.
“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.
He believes his players have the potential but lack the facilities.
Women’s cricket captain Ann-Marie Kamara, a fierce bowler with dark green eyeshadow, agrees.
“The cricket ground is pathetic because if you play on this bare ground you bruise… when you go to another man’s country you see the grass but here it’s just sand and if you fall you get yourself injured,” she said.
The Sierra Leone Cricket Association was recently granted a piece of land outside the capital by the government which they plan to develop into a cricket academy with two pitches.
It is also trying to use the game as a social tool to get boys off the street and into school, handing out scholarships and school materials as prizes at tournaments.
Equally important is instilling a love of the over 400-year old game and nurturing “great players rather than celebrities” chasing the golden ticket.
The players seem to be getting the message. When asked why she loves cricket, Ann-Marie replies without hesitation, deadpan: “It’s a gentleman’s game.”