Uganda’s progress to the T20 World Cup is nothing short of a fairytale. Just five years ago, they were relegated to Division Four of the World Cricket League. Uganda was initially a combination of East Africa along with Kenya and Tanzania. In fact, East Africa competed at the 1975 World Cup after they received associate status in 1966, but lost all their three matches in that competition.
They continued to compete under the name of East and Central Africa cricket team till 1997 when they also participated in the ICC Trophy in 1990. The tournament also acted as a qualifier for the 1992 World Cup. Frank Nsubuga was just 22 then.
And now, fast forward to 2023, Uganda have qualified for their first-ever World Cup, pipping Zimbabwe to the finish line. In fact, Nsubuga has been a constant in the team - be it with East Africa or Uganda since the early 80s.
He took started playing at the highest level at 14, and has seen it all in Uganda Cricket. However, it was not until Lawrence Mahatlane took charge that things started to take shape and a goal was set - to play the T20 World Cup 2024.
Mahatlane told his team that they indeed had a chance of playing at the T20 World Cup, in the US and the Caribbean next June. Was he kidding? Nsuguba certainly thought so.
“Coach Mahatlane has changed our cricket. When had come in, he told us, 'guys, do you know we can play the World Cup in 2024?' We couldn't believe what he was saying,” Nsubuga said in a chat with Cricket.com.
“He used to spend a lot of time with us in the training. He gave us a cricket culture. I think he has changed a lot of things in Ugandan cricket. He has changed a lot of players. The players started believing in him. He mixed it up - with the junior and senior players. He has done a lot of work - that believing we can qualify, we can play with that mentality, the belief, the mindset, he has sold us a dream. So, he has done a lot for us. I cannot even believe it that Uganda qualified for the 2024 World Cup.”
While Mahatlane quit as the head coach a month before the African Qualifiers, his assistant coach Jackson Ogwang has, in a way, fulfilled his promise. Of course, he did it with some help from Craig Williams, the former Namibian captain, who played a pivotal role in the Qualifiers, given that it was played in Namibia.
“Coach Craig Williams, when he came into the camp, he told us, we came here to win this trophy. He told me, you're not a loser.' He gave us that one percent at that moment. He told us to take it game by game and plan for that game, and people are following it. He also knew the conditions because he has lived in Namibia for long, he's has been there, he has played there. So, he has done a lot of...reading the conditions, telling us what the wicket is going to do. So, I think he has done a lot for us. We thank him for that.
The African region has grown from strength to strength over the years. Namibia is an excellent example. They have made it to their third T20 World Cup in a row, and their excellent performances in League 2 in the previous cycle nearly saw them make the ODI World Cup Qualifiers as well.
Nsubuga believes, for Uganda, it is all about playing more and more cricket that has seen them grow. In fact, since 2021, no team has played more T20Is than Uganda (80).
“We in Uganda, play a lot of T20, play a lot of cricket. That's helped us in the way we are playing, the way we are thinking, and the way we are approaching the game,” Nsubuga, who holds the record of most maidens (15) in T20Is, said.
“We need to play more cricket as Africa region - to play those big teams. If South Africa can give us South Africa A, maybe if we can go to play in Zimbabwe, keep on playing cricket, I think people are going to improve, they are going get better, they are going to change the way they are thinking.
“We need to keep playing more cricket. If you keep playing more cricket, you will get better and that's what we did as a Ugandan team. We played over 50 games. Only India played more games. We played the most games in the last three years. If we can keep on playing more games, people will get better.”
But how did all begin for Nsubuga, especially in a country where cricket does not even feature among the top five sports?
“There's a gentleman called Sam Walusimbi who inspired me. He brought me into cricket. He played in the 1975 World Cup for East Africa,” Nsubuga recalls.
“I played for East Africa when I was young. Those are the things that inspired me to play cricket and also to love cricket. When I was young, I used to fear the cricket ball. When I was growing up that gentleman used to be the general secretary of that place [a cricket club] then. He made me play cricket. He also had a cricket ground and that's when I have come to play cricket.
“But I have played a lot of sports - tennis, hockey, cricket, badminton, volleyball, table tennis. I have been playing sports right from when I was young.”
Nsubuga continues to be among the fittest cricketers in his side. He is no stranger to taking stunning catches or being a livewire on the field.
Recalling his journey, Nsubuga says, “I started playing for the national team when I was 14 years old. Then we used to play a tournament called Zone Six East Africa tournaments [Zone Six African Cricket Confederation Championship]...Kenya, Uganda, those kind of teams. That's when I started my cricket, that's 27 years ago!
“I played my club cricket in South Africa when I was playing for Lenasia Cricket Club, I played in the Kenyan League. Those are the things that made my cricket come up. I work hard and keep myself very fit.
“I am 43 now. My routine involves waking up at six in the morning and doing my jogging, and then I join the gym. That's helped me be a hard worker. In the evenings, I take my tea, my juice; I don't do booze. Those are the things that have made me keep on playing and keep on being this strong.”
Coming back to the Qualifiers, after beating Tanzania comfortably in the first game, but hit a roadblock in the next one, losing to hosts Namibia by six wickets. Added to that, they were up against Zimbabwe next. Uganda had never encountered a Test nation before and this game. It was certainly going to be an uphill task against the Sikandar Raza-led side, who were still hurting from their failed attempt to make the 50-over World Cup.
Moreover, they, too, had lost to Namibia and were in a similar position as Uganda, having won one of their two games. Another loss could either side could potentially see them out of contention.
“After losing to Namibia, we said, 'guys, let's focus, let's leave this loss on the ground because we knew if we can beat Zimbabwe, we can qualify to go and play the World Cup. After losing [to Namibia], everyone decided to focus on that Zimbabwe game. The only thing that was going to take us to the US [to the World Cup]. Yes, we had other games to play, but that game we wanted to win. We took every game as a final. We knew we need to face this final to game to qualify for the World Cup,” Nsubuga said.
Unless Chris Gayle makes a dramatic comeback, Nsubuga will be the oldest player to feature at next year’s marquee event. The Cricket Cranes are the latest kid on the block on the world stage. While they may be an unknown commodity at this stage, the teams would know better than to take them lightly.
With the gap between the full members and the lower-ranked narrower than ever before, Brian Masaba’s men will be determined to ensure that beating Zimbabwe isn’t their only high point in this long journey.
Dreams do come true. Just try convincing Nsuguba and Uganda otherwise.
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