Steve Tikolo: The torch-bearer of Kenyan cricket

Steve Tikolo was a dependable force for Kenya for 15 years © Getty Images

On June 25, 1971, Kenyan cricket’s poster boy Steve Tikolo was born. His name will go in the annals of cricket history for what he exemplified and accomplished for Kenya. Sarang Bhalerao revisits the cricketing career of Tikolo whose every sinew of the body was stretched for the prosperity of Kenyan cricket.

On March 20, 2011, Steve Tikolo was trapped leg-before for 10 by Zimbabwe’s Ray Price in the 2011 World Cup game at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Tikolo challenged the call and asked for a review. But, the third umpire upheld the original call. Surprisingly, there were no celebrations from the Zimbabwean side. Instead, they crowded around Tikolo to shake his hand as he was trudging off towards the dressing room. The Zimbabweans continued to clap in unison until Tikolo reached the dressing room. It was ther last glimpse of the Associate nations’ stalwart and certainly the best cricketer produced by Kenya.  His retirement marked the end of an era.

Tikolo had been the face of Kenyan cricket right since they arrived on the international circuit during the 1996 World Cup. He kick-started his One-Day International (ODI) career against India in Cuttack. He top-scored with a promising 83-ball 65 and at no point in his innings did Tikolo look uncomfortable.

One of the most celebrated moments in the annals of Kenyan cricket history is their victory over the West Indies in Pune in the 1996 World Cup. Tikolo was the top-scorer with 29 runs and Kenya posted 166 – which proved to be decisive in the final analysis. Kenya bowled out West Indies for 93 which was one of the biggest World Cup upset for the two-time World Cup winners.

His 96 off 95 balls against the eventual World Cup winners, Sri Lanka in Kandy showed his class. He was often a one-man army and Kenya heavily relied on his batting ability to guide them.

Tikolo was not a purist by any stretch of imagination. His batting relied on timing and power. He was equally competent against fast bowling and spin. Whenever any opposition played Kenya, Tikolo’s wicket was prized for 15 years since he had the propensity to construct big innings.

Ask Bangladesh. In the ICC Trophy final against Bangladesh at Kaula Lampur, Tikolo made a monumental 147 out of Kenya’s total of 241 for seven. When he was finally out, the King of Malaysia stood up to applaud him into the pavilion. But, Kenya lost the rain-affected thrilling finale off the last ball where Bangladesh chased down 166 off 25 overs. Kenya was granted an official ODI status and they booked a place in the 1999 World Cup in England.

In 1998, Kenya played a tri-series in India which also included Bangladesh. Tikolo made 77 against India in Bangalore and 65 against Bangladesh in the next game in Chennai. He also picked up two Bangladeshi wickets and earned his first man-of-the-match award in ODIs. Against India in Gwalior, Kenya shocked the hosts beating them comprehensively by 69 runs. Tikolo failed with the bat scoring only 21, but was a success with the ball as he picked up three Indian wickets — Robin Singh, Rahul Dravid and Jatin Paranjpe to stall the momentum in the middle overs.

Tikolo scored his maiden century against Bangladesh in Dhaka in 1999 tri-series which also involved Zimbabwe. His unbeaten 106 helped Kenya chase down 214. In the next game he scored 78 against Zimbabwe but that couldn’t prevent Kenya from losing the lop-sided encounter by 64 runs.

In 1999, a Marylebourne Cricket Club (MCC) side toured Kenya. In the third match of the series, Tikolo, representing the Kenya Cricket Association XI, scored 137 after which Matthew Maynard, MCC’s captain, said that Tikolo would get into any international side in the world.

In the 1999 World Cup, Tikolo scored two back-to-back half-centuries – 71 against England in Canterbury and 58 against India in Bristol. Kenya failed to win a single match in a forgettable tournament.

In 2002, Tikolo took over the captaincy of the national team. At the ICC Champions Trophy held in Sri Lanka that year, he led from the front by scoring back-to-back half-centuries yet again – 93 against the West Indies and 69 against South Africa. Kenya failed to win both the matches and were knocked out of the competition.

The high point in Kenyan cricket history came under Tikolo’s leadership when he led the team to the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. Kenya beat Sri Lanka, Canada and Bangladesh in the group stages and were awarded a walkover against New Zealand, progressing through to the Super Sixes. A third victory over a Test playing nation in the Super Sixes, this time Zimbabwe, saw them book a place in the semi-finals. He managed to score fifties off consecutive innings – 51 against Australia and 56 against India [in the semi-final] both at Durban.

Steve Tikolo: The Kenyan superstar

Steve Tikolo hits out during a game against Australia at the 2003 World Cup © Getty Images

The promising performance in the tournament raised Kenyan hopes of getting Test status. All that was needed was for a First-Class competition to be set up in the country and money channelled for development at the grassroots to ensure that the next generation of cricketers had a chance to grow.

But Kenya’s promise quickly disappeared in a morass of maladministration. Ten years later there is still no First-Class cricket in Kenya, only a One-Day club competition which is preventing their ascension to the next level at the international stage.

Talking to ESPNCricinfo during the 2011 World Cup Tikolo said, “If you look at 2003, the ICC wanted Kenya to be the next Test team. They did help. They put in some money for development at the grassroots. But because of poor management in Kenyan cricket, all that went down the drain. People ate the money without showing anything for it. No development was done. That really annoyed the ICC and they sort of forgot about Kenya. It was Kenya’s fault in terms of management that we didn’t progress.”

“The new [management] team that came in, they haven’t had any money to work with. They have only been depending on the grants from the ICC that Associate countries get. We have not had a sponsor for the last seven or eight years. It has also been tough on them, in terms of managing the little grants they get from the ICC to look after the national team, do the grassroots development and management,” said Tikolo.

In 2006, he scored 111 against Bermuda in Mombasa. That was his second ODI century. In the 2007 World Cup, Tikolo was impressive. In the three matches he scored 155 runs with twin seventies – 72 not out against Canada [a game which Kenya won by seven wickets] and 76 against England at Gros Islet.

Steve Tikolo: The Kenyan superstar

Steve Tikolo pulls during his innings of 76 against England at the 2007 World Cup © Getty Images

Tikolo had managed to score well in the World Cups, but in his final series [World Cup 2011], he had a torrid time. In four previous World Cups, he had scored a couple of fifties in each of the editions. In 2011, he aggregated 44 in five innings, with a highest of 13. That brought his overall World Cup numbers down quite considerably. But, that did not stop the opponents from respecting him. He was still a dangerous batsman whenever he took strike.

Steve Tikolo: The Kenyan superstar

Steve Tikolo is dimissed during his final One-Day International (ODI) appearance © Getty Images

Tikolo claims that there is a lot of talent in Kenya. “We need to get more games against tough opposition,” he said. “That’s the only way you improve. When you get beaten, you go back and sit down and find areas that you need to improve. If you keep on playing at the same level, you stagnate.”

Today Tikolo is the batting coach of Uganda. He said after his appointment on July 10, 2012 that it was unfortunate that he had to leave Kenya but he just had to. The cricketing infrastructure in Kenya needs a serious makeover in the years to come.

Tikolo has endured a lot of lows and some remarkable epoch-making highs for Kenya. He scored a total of 3,421 runs in 134 matches at an average of 28.99. He also took 94 wickets in ODIs. Apart from that, he also played 11 T20 Internationals scoring 260 runs and picking up three wickets.

His name will not go down as one of the greats of the game, but for what he exemplified and accomplished for Kenya. Tikolo always got the respect from the cricketing fraternity. When he bid adieu it was akin to a proverbial period to the Kenyan cricket which certainly will be poorer without him. He was the nation’s heartbeat who continued to fight till his last drop of blood. Every sinew of his body was stretched for the prosperity of Kenya. He got them onto the cricketing map. The question is: Who will carry forward his legacy?

(Sarang Bhalerao hails from a family of doctors, but did his engineering. He then dumped a career in IT with Infosys to follow his heart and passion and became a writer with CricketCountry. A voracious reader, Sarang aspires to beat Google with his knowledge of the game! You can follow him on Twitter here)