| Collins Obuya, the Man of the Match against Sri Lanka, outside a hotel in Nairobi Tuesday. (Reuters)
Nairobi: It is doubtful whether Sanath Jayasuriya and his Sri Lankans had ever heard of the Luo tribe before their extraordinary World Cup defeat by Kenya on Monday.
Steve Tikolo’s side, however, who beat the 1996 world champions by 53 runs in one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, were heavily stocked with the tribesmen from the west. If the Kalenjin tribe from Kenya’s expansive Rift Valley Province have made distance running their preserve, it is the Luos who have dominated cricket.
While the game was initially championed by the country’s Asian population, the Luos, from Nyanza province and one of the biggest tribes, were the first indigenous Kenyans to take to bat and ball.The first player to break into those predominantly Asian squads was Kenneth Odhiambo, a Luo who toured England with Kenya in 1976. Two years later, Thomas Opondo joined him on a tour of Zimbabwe. Others began to break through at club level.Many boys with no previous knowledge of the sport started playing, often improvising with a stick and a cob of maize in the streets.
They would perch on the fence of Nairobi’s Sir Ali Muslim Club, built by Muslims within a government estate, to watch the game.
“We were playing for fun and we saw a way of touring the world, which was quite exciting,” Odhiambo said.
“But I think what has spurred this interest is the opportunities for economic gain, which the sport has offered the local boys.”
Many were sons of poorly-paid government workers who saw cricket as an escape route from economic hardship. The game is something of a family business in Kenya and all of Odhiambo’s family play. The Odumbe brothers are also household cricket names, inside as well as outside Kenya.
Maurice Odumbe was captain when the east African nation pulled off its other major success, beating the West Indies at the 1996 World Cup. He also played on Monday. Edward Tito Odumbe was also in the team seven years ago.
At the 1990 ICC Trophy in The Netherlands, the Kenyans reached the semi-finals with six Luos in their ranks, four of them Odumbe brothers — Tito, Maurice, Bernard Owinro and Martin Oriwo. The Suji brothers, Martin and MacDonald, also featured.
Tom Tikolo — a Luhya and who is the eldest brother of current Kenyan captain Steve — was also in that team, with another brother, David Tikolo.
Cricket has come a long way in Kenya. Its international players are now among the country’s best-paid sportsmen. The World Cup squad is each expected to earn around 1 million shillings ($13,070).
Leg-spinner Collins Obuya, Man of the Match on Monday with five wickets for 24, took away a 12,000-rand ($1,482) gold watch, far beyond the wildest dreams of most well-paid Kenyans.
Obuya is also a Luo. And, of course, he had two brothers in the World Cup squad, Kennedy — known by his second name of Otieno and who scored 60 against Sri Lanka — and David. Monday team members Peter Ongondo, Thomas Odoyo, Martin and Tony Suji and Joseph Angara are fellow tribesmen.
They may not run 10,000 metres for a living but they can play cricket.