‘You are making party for us,” the voice on the other end of the line said, in Hinglish (Hindi-English), when I picked the phone at my work station at the foreign news desk.
Before I could ask why I was throwing a bash, he added that “you are hero today because your country is making cricket history,” and before I could digest that, he figured out that I was short of cash to not only throw a bash for the whole newsroom but also for the five people on the foreign news desk.
“I’m lending you money. No problem, so send for sweets and dry fruits for the newsroom and later our desk will go out for drinks,” he said.
The mood in the New Delhi newsroom of the Times of India was electric on that evening of February 29, 1996 and the sports editor, like most people in the newsroom, had been shuffling between his desk and the executive editor’s office where there was a television set.
“I think West Indies is losing,” he had shouted at some point, and then got down to working the phones, placing calls to the Times News Service writers in Pune, Maharashtra, where Kenya was playing against the West Indies, giants of world cricket, in a group stage match — the 20th match of the 1996 Cricket World Cup which was co-hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The person who had called was my boss, a cricket-loving, chain-smoking man managing the foreign news desk in the absence of the foreign news editor who had been posted to Washington, to file stories for Times News Service, the in-house news agency for the then 25-edition daily.
There was a big shout from the executive editor’s office when West Indies lost its star batsman, Brian Lara with only 33 runs on the board, and there was some sort of feeling that the two-time World Champions were losing the match.
Kenyans smell victory
The one-man run machine was caught behind by Tariq Iqbal off Rajab Ali after facing 11 deliveries and scoring eight runs which included a boundary. Could West Indies really lose to World Cup debutants Kenya, a team that had gone to the World Cup with jerseys on which only a lion standing on its rear feet and a cricket ball was emblazoned on the front, without a corporate name in the form of a shirt sponsor?
That was the Kenyan badge, a badge of honour you can say, and as Kenya lost match after match, the chance of Kenya’s jersey sharing the front with a corporate name kept diminishing, until the day the minions upset the form book.
It was not only in the newsroom where the mood was ecstatic. Business along the bustling Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, India’s Fleet Street, had come to a standstill with road side chai wallahs (tea sellers) abandoning their pressure stoves in the makeshift stalls to go to the “fan zones” where companies had set up television screens for the cricket-mad Delhites.
Of course the whole of India is cricket-mad, and residents watch matches regardless of the teams playing, but this particular match was arousing more interest since the favourites, the peoples’ best team was being slain by a side with players whose names even the cricket-mad sports journalists could hardly pronounce.
Campbell, Richardson, Lara, Chanderpaul, Ambrose, Arthurton, Adams, Bishop, Walsh, Cuffy and Roger Harper who later became Kenya’s coach were more than household names in India, they were gods with shrines in their honour, and some of them had even appeared in local TV and newspaper commercials.
But on this day, these gods were falling off their pedestals. No, they were being knocked off their pedestals right before the eyes of their adherents, followers, worshippers who were now eagerly waiting for the following day’s newspapers so that they could clip the photograph of Maurice Odumbe, to paste on their walls, in the new shrines they were readying to start building.
But trust zealots to never give up hope easily. After the fall of Brian Lara, who had come in at number three after Martin Suji had bowled skipper Stuart Campbell (four runs off 12 deliveries), they still had hope, faith in the other gods who were yet to grace the crease.
Unfortunately, Kenyan skipper Odumbe had other ideas, and when Keith Arthurton was run out for a duck, and then Steve Tikolo caught Shivnarine Chanderpaul off Odumbe, with 55 runs on the board, despair started creeping in.
With 19 runs which included three boundaries, off 48 deliveries, Chanderpaul would be the highest runs getter for the giants, who lost Adams (caught by Hitesh Modi off Odumbe), Roger Harper (caught by Tariq Iqbal off Odumbe), Curtley Ambrose (run out), Courtney Walsh (caught by Dipak Chudasama off Asif Karim) and Cameron Cuffy (bowled by Rajab Ali) in a quick succession to end up with 93 in 35.2 overs.
Ian Bishop who managed only six runs from 42 deliveries and Cuffy, the last man to face the humiliating wrath of the Kenyan bowlers, were transfixed on the crease as Odumbe led the Kenyan team in celebrations.
For a minute, the 25,000-capacity Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium went silent as if the fans were paying homage to the new gods, the slayers of the West Indian team which was larger than life, metaphorically and literally, considering the physique of the Caribbean cricketers.
“We were going out for a picnic. It was only when they started losing wickets that we began to get serious,” Odumbe, who was also the man-of-the-match, said at the presentation.
The flamboyant captain was not magnanimous in victory, and he rubbed it in when he told of his encounter with Lara in England before the encounter in Pune.
“I met Lara at a match in England several years ago before he was in the West Indies team and asked for his autograph,” Odumbe recalled. “He said he didn’t have the time, but when we beat them in the World Cup, I went up to him and said: ‘A few years ago I asked for your autograph and you would not give it. Now I am saying you can have mine.’”
A small step for the cricketing world, considering that it was the fourth time in One Day International history that an Associate member had beaten a test side in World Cups, beamed live the world over, with clips of the game parks and the country’s famed tourist spots also receiving airtime in between breaks.
By then, the Kenyan team was known as the Tusker Boys after Kenya Breweries not only raised a toast to the determined cricketers but also put its money where our throats were, and sponsored the national team, leaving both the office and the playing unit laughing all the way to the boardroom and the dressing room respectively.
In 2003, the Cricket World Cup came to Africa and hosts South Africa ‘spread the wealth’ and Kenya and Zimbabwe got chances to host some of the matches.
“By then we were a very strong side,” says Odoyo. “We were a strong playing unit with a coach who understood the players and local cricket because he had played here.” He says Kenya had played against stronger sides, some of which used to come to Kenya as ‘A’ teams but had more than half the players in the first teams.
Until now, 2003 remains the most memorable one for Kenyan cricket, and Sri Lanka, the 1996 World Champions which had broken a record with our side in 1996, got a taste of its own medicine when the Tusker Boys beat it black and blue at the Nairobi Gymkhana on 24th February 2003.
The visitors lost by 53 runs after being bowled out for 157 in 44.5 overs with Collins Obuya, the current captain, finishing with a career-best five for 24 runs.
His elder brother, Kennedy Obuya hit 60 runs to help set the 211 target which proved insurmountable for the Sri Lankans which was hopping to keep their 100 per cent unbeaten record in that year’s World Cup, but could not keep up with the rejuvenated side that was playing its first World Cup match before the home fans.
Kenya’s lucky streak ended at the semi finals, but it had made a mark in the cricketing world.
The celebrations continued for many days, and my boss did not have to lend me money in order to throw a bash.