The bellows from a previous national team coach can still be clearly heard by Rwanda captain Clinton Rubagumya as the best cricketers in the nation repeatedly faced the other way during fielding practice.
Experience had forced Rwanda’s players to deal with a variety of quirks.
Many of them had lost their front teeth as children due to a ball that ricocheted dangerously upwards and hit rough patches while they were still only able to play cricket on dirt football fields.
Rubagumya explains, “So you learned to collect it while turning your face away.”
He still recalls thinking, “This is a carpet!” as soon as he arrived in South Africa for his first game outside of Rwanda. How are you hurt here, exactly?
Rwanda’s roads, the lowest-ranked team still in with a chance of competing in the next year of the World Cup, are among the few that have been as rocky or steep in qualifying for the 2024 T20 Cup.
Back through cricket, a rural building
The sport didn’t exist in the nation for much longer than 20 years.
Rwanda was a part of French-speaking Francophone Africa prior to the horrifying 1994 genocide that claimed 800,000 lives, mostly from the minority Tutsi tribe.
The leaders of Rwanda started shedding its colonial past as a large number of refugees returned from exile in English-speaking, cricket-playing nations like Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.
What sport was better to cement that relationship than cricket? Rwanda would gradually become more English over the years and eventually join the Commonwealth in 2009.
However, due to the primitive nature of the cricketing environment, human bone fragments were almost always discovered on the field, and up until 2017, the only playing facility was situated there.
At the beginning of that decade, a UK-based charity was established to raise money for the nation’s first international-standard stadium, marking the start of the dizzying upwards curve to the cusp of an important global event.
There were only 50 cricketers spread across three clubs at that time, according to star batter and former captain Eric Dusingizimana. Tens of thousands of players from across the nation are now represented by 24 clubs, and cricket is being taught more and more in schools. He declares, “It’s a very, very big difference.”
More than most, Dusingizimana has played a significant part in evolution. At a stadium fundraiser in May 2016, he broke the Guinness world record for the longest individual net session. Tony Blair and Miss Rwanda, who was in charge at the time, gave him 51-hour marathon runs.
He says, “I did it for the cause despite how difficult it was.” “I began on Wednesday at 8 am and finished on Friday at 11 am. I then returned home and slept for almost four days.
The end result was the world-class Gahanga International Cricket Stadium, which was constructed outside of Kigali, the nation’s capital and played a crucial role in the significant change in cricketing fortunes.
International competitions are now regularly held at the stadium, and according to Rubagumya, even in recent years, he has received unmatched attention.
People used to inquire about my playing style of tennis or golf when I was walking around with my kit three or four years ago, he claims. I now encounter people who comment, “Oh, you’re a cricketer!” People are beginning to understand the game.
On the cricket field, divisions disband.
Sport is viewed as a unifying force for social cohesion in this nation where genocide victims now stand side by side with perpetrators.
In the nation, using the terms Hutu and Tutsi is viewed as impolite and possibly even illegally “dividendist.” Everyone is instead just seen as a Rwandan.
Rubagumya, who was born the year following the genocide, says, “I’m amazed at how you play with so many people from different backgrounds and no one ever complains about where you’re from.”
I’m not sure how the country’s tensions were because I was so young, but I can say with certainty that they don’t exist when it comes to sports.
The Rwanda Cricket Association (RCA) has always made sure that a women’s tournament is held whenever it is possible to do so in conjunction with any male tournaments in order to start the sport from scratch.
That widespread equality has produced astounding results. The women’s team is a remarkable 25th in the world T20I rankings, while the men are 62nd.
The Rwandan debutants made headlines earlier this year with stunning victories over Zimbabwe and the West Indies at the Under-19 Women’s T20 World Cup, the first time the country had ever hosted a significant ICC tournament at any level.
According to Lee Booth, head coach of the men’s team, “The RCA always knew it would be much more difficult to get their team far up the rankings, whereas there was an opportunity with the women.”
And by chance, some incredibly talented players were discovered. How it snowballed from there is amazing. The numbers have blown up.
Through the Cricket Without Boundaries charity in 2010, Booth, a native of the small village of Thurstonland outside of Huddersfield, made his first trip to Rwanda. He was given the short-term position of head coach in June 2023 after making several trips to the nation over the course of the following twelve years.
Booth has firsthand knowledge of the significant turnaround because he arrived when the cricket structure was at best basic. He claims that when he first arrived, the national team consisted primarily of expat Asian men and a few Rwandans who were brought along because they were familiar with the anthem.
The team is currently made up entirely of young Rwandan boys. The game’s growth in this area has been astounding.
Booth now has a task that is both unlikely and impossible. Rwanda will challenge some of the continent’s top players for one of two spots available at the 2024 T20 World Cup Africa Qualifier over the coming days after defying expectations to advance to the final stage.
The continental heavyweights Zimbabwe, which is ranked eleventh in the world, as well as hosts Namibia (12th), Uganda (23rd), Kenya (32nd), and Nigeria (38th) will face off against the amateurs of Rwanda, none of whom have yet earned any money from cricket.
The main obstacle for us, according to Rubagumya, was getting there. “We’re going to face off against guys we’ve only ever seen on television.”
We are aware that realistically, qualifying is difficult for us. We do, however, believe that there is a goal for which we should strive. We may not stand to lose much, but we do.
The dream, too? My friend, it’s getting close to the World Cup,” he continues, laughing. Zimbabwe and Rwanda are the two qualifying countries.
An already extraordinary story would come to a fairytale conclusion with that. Whatever the case, Rwanda’s cricketing career is just getting started.
|Kenya on November 22 (07:30 GMT)|
|Nigeria on November 24 (07:30 GMT)|
|Namibia on November 25 (11:50 GMT)|
|Zimbabwe vs. the 27th of November (07:30 GMT)|
|Tanzania vs. 29 November (07:30 GMT)|
|Uganda on November 30 (07:30 GMT)|