In 2017, two wins shook the cricket world to the core. One was Pakistan beating India in the final of the Champions Trophy in England in June and the other was the Lady Cricket Cranes winning the Africa T20 title.
The gap between the have and have not’s in cricket is so huge that the odds for a minor upsetting a favorite are as low as Leicester winning the Premier League in 2016.
For a long time, Zimbabwe – by virtue of being an ODI nation – was the standard in women’s cricket in Africa. They were assured of winning any tournament as long as they showed up. The competition below them was led by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania with the midfield packed with the likes of Namibia, Rwanda and Nigeria.
At the 2017 Africa T20 Qualifiers in Namibia, Zimbabwe were still favourites to advance to the Global Qualifiers in the Netherlands – a pathway to the main event, the T20 Women’s World Cup. Unfortunately for Africa, despite the quality in cricket from the many teams, only one slot is available to advance to the next round – a slot that has always been reserved for Zimbabwe.
The Lady Cricket Cranes were a team in transition with the addition of rising stars Rita Musamali, Immaculate Nakisuyi, and Stephanie Nampiina. Kevin Awino had taken over the reins of captaincy and this was her first major assignment.
Gertrude Candiru who had captained Uganda before offered her advise to Kevin every time she needed it.
“Kevin was new in the role and I offered my advice to her on how to manage players and to always remain calm in tough situations. Some players were difficult but it’s expected of ladies. None the less as senior players we felt it was important that we own up and support Kevin and the new young players,” Candiru says.
For experience, Naomi Kayondo, Franklin Najjumba, Carol Namugenyi, Consy Aweko, and Candiru were the go-to players for the side.
Kenyan Francis Ndege Othieno was the coach of the side with Grace Mutyagaba his assistant.
However, Candiru needed some convincing to return to the ladies team given all the emotions that are involved with women. A very opinionated player, Candiru had a run-in with the head coach, especially since she had an injury that needed to be managed for her to do well.
“I had a foot injury that I sustained in a league game. We tried everything with the physiotherapist but I was going through a lot of pain,” she recalls. “Ultimately the only way to heal was to rest and this brought some friction with the coaching team because they felt I was just staying away from practice. I was even surprised that I made the tour team to Nairobi but I still didn’t play much on the tour. The break that I had was worthwhile since my injury got healed and was close to full fitness.”
However, the best-laid plans sometimes don’t go to plan. Head coach Francis Othieno was denied travel because of a passport issue yet his only assistant had not been included on the traveling contingent. In the dead of the night, assistant coach Grace Mutyagaba had to quickly fly into Windhoek to ensure that the team has a technical person to handle.
“We were so hurt for the coach to stay behind but being that we were one team, we had to remain strong and play very well and not to let all the efforts we put in to be wasted,” says skipper Kevin Awino.
Not having the head coach was a terrible feeling for Candiru on whom he had taken a gamble. “I felt terrible when we couldn’t go with the coach,” she says. “He had taken a chance on me even after our issues, he at least put cricket first and not emotions. In that moment it dawned on me that I need to repay back all this faith the team had put in me. I had prayed a lot when I was injured and I asked God to give me favor during the tournament.”
However, once it was showtime, team Uganda was in its own element. The tournament was played on a round-robin format with the hosts Namibia joined by Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. Uganda’s only blip in the tournament was their 3rd game, a 52-run loss to favourites Zimbabwe.
“For this particular game, I feel we were just a little fatigued. We conceded the highest runs the whole tournament, but it didn’t put us down at all,” Candiru says of the game.
The team was able to walk through the other fixtures unscathed including old enemies Kenya and Tanzania but they would meet the former in a pressure-filled semifinal that Team Captain Kevin Awino remembers so well.
“It was a pressure game because we knew ourselves very well. Being that they are our neighbours and some of the Kenyan players play in our league, it made the semifinals look like a final for us,” she says.
Winning against Kenya is always bittersweet but the job for the girls was half done as Zimbabwe, of course, beat Namibia in the other semifinal.
“In this game, if I remember well, we nearly gave up because Kenya was on top of us most of the time,” Candiru recalls. “We were very quiet in the tent but our Liaison officer got our icebox and started hitting it to cheer us up and somehow we managed to win that game. God bless her!”
In the low scoring final, favourites Zimbabwe batted first scoring a paltry 99 in their 20 overs. Opener Mary Nalule didn’t trouble the scorers and early in the chase, and Uganda was already 1 for 1 but they kept chipping away at the total slowly.
With eight runs needed off 8 balls, Uganda lost the wicket of Stephanie Nampiina with Candiru and Awino left with the job of closing out what would be a memorable win.
“The game went down to the wire. When Nampiina departed, I was so tired from all the hard running between the wickets As I tried to catch the breath, I saw Kevin charging towards me yet I would have preferred she took her time to allow me some time to rest,” says Candiru.
“I remember we needed 3 runs off 4 balls. I swung and missed one but then I told Kevin, whatever happens, we are running off this ball. Luck was on my side as the bowler delivered one in my zone, I made a connection with the ball and the rest is history,” Candiru recalls.
“I have always had my luck when it comes to hitting winning runs. I cried tears of joy. Even our enemies Kenya were celebrating with us. God is surely faithful because I had gone through personal battles to make the team and I was happy he had not abandoned me in the tournament. I picked wickets and scored runs in a perfect all-round performance. That MVP award gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
The shock win meant that Uganda earned the right to represent Uganda at the 2018 Global Qualifiers in the Netherlands, a first for the country. The ladies were able to compete finishing 5th out of 8 nations.
That three-wicket win against Namibia is so far the highest moment for the Lady Cricket Cranes and the new generation of players will have to scale those heights and even do better by qualifying for the World Cup.