Annie Chave gives the low down on the inspiring rise of cricket in Sierra Leone
With our country currently engaged in one of the most divisive and unnecessary political battles in its history and our cricket fan-base similarly divided over ways to progress the game, it feels like an appropriate time to step away from our self-imposed turmoil and look at a wonderful story developing about a cricket club in a country that has been through some of the most horrific hardships humanity can endure.
Sierra Leone, a West African country with a population of over seven million, is still recovering from losing 50,000 people in a bitter civil war that engulfed it between 1991 and 2002. The end of the war saw a period of rebuilding, with sport becoming an important healing element. A boost to cricket came in 2002, when Sierra Leone became an Affiliate Member of The ICC, advancing to Associate Membership in 2017. Meanwhile in the Kent region, in the south-west of the country, a cricket club, utilising the business acumen of an enterprising young cricketer, began a restorative process that deserves the recognition I'm hoping this article will help to spread.
Their Chief Executive Officer, Emmanuel Pessima, grew up in the centre of the conflict, developing from a youth spent playing cricket with a bat carved from a coconut tree to becoming part of the national side, playing successively for the under 15s, 17s, 19s and men's team. In 2011, at the age of nineteen, he helped to form Kenemmanjanee Cricket Club, with the specific aim of "giving young people hope and focus, in overcoming the challenges they faced as a result of war and conflict". It began its life as a women's team, playing the first game in June 2012 in the Sierra Leone National Women's T20 League. In April 2013 it changed its name to Kent Cricket Club, as part of a rebranding and to reflect the number of its players who came from Kent, an area near to the ground. The club has since grown to include a girls', boys' and men's team alongside the women's, and the club is growing in strength and stature.
This growth has been made possible by considerable help from an impressive number of sources, including Sydney Thunder, Michael Pawley Sports, Cobham Avorians CC, Children's Cricket Charity, FlicxPitch Uk, Hellenic Cricket Federation, the Lord's Taverners, the Twenty20 Cricket Company and, in 2013, a partnership with Kent County Cricket Club was formed. "Kent CCC have helped us by providing equipment, clothing and medals as well as guiding us", Emmanuel tells me. When I contacted Andy Griffiths, Kent's Director of Community Cricket, to ask him about their input and assistance, he confirmed that they have provided equipment and "advised them on specific cricket development enquiries and been supportive of their efforts to develop cricket in their country". Andy is keen to see a growth in the number of countries playing cricket, and has followed Emmanuel's quest with interest. For Emmanuel, the support from an English county and from the Twenty20 Cricket Company has been vital to the advancement and wellbeing of the young children at his club: "Most of the children that we work with are from extremely poor backgrounds and the cricket club is a lifeline to them", he says, and gratefully adds that "a number of UK cricket fans have also helped by donating money". Such support was vital when Sierra Leone was hit by the ebola virus in 2014 and by flooding and mud-slides in 2017.
"No-one is paid to play cricket in Sierra Leone", Emmanuel explains to me as I rather naively ask why he isn't currently playing. Emmanuel works as a banker and could not take up an invitation to play for the national team. "Because of my job commitment I don't have the time to practise and train so I cannot commit on national assignment but only Club cricket".
His voluntary position as CEO of Kent CC takes up such a huge proportion of his 'free' time that it's no wonder he is unable to play for national team again.
As I write this article, the MCC is touring Sierra Leone for the first time since 2003. Emmanuel was an eleven-year-old boy at that time, but he remembers it well, and it's evidence of his commitment to the game that this visit sees him heavily involved, both by being asked to commentate on the matches at Prince of Wales School's cricket ground and by providing three of Kent's youngsters to the Sierra Leone under-19. Emmanuel is delighted to have the MCC touring he says, but it is made possible by the driving force of the Chairman of the Sierra Leone Cricket Association, Beresford Bournse-Coker, and the former CEO of Kent County Cricket Club, Jamie Clifford is the Tour Manager. "There is less government funding or sponsorship available to cricket", explains Emmanuel, "and our facilities are very basic". The MCC side and tour schedule are listed below. I'll bet that no one has warned Emmanuel that the MCC skipper has a first-class batting average of 56.83.
Jamie Clifford (Tour Manager)
Gus Kennedy (Captain)
Nick Anderson ((Didsbury CC)
Sam Arthurton (Great Witchingham CC)
Jordan Bulpitt (Walsall CC)
Andrew Curtis (Weybridge CC)
Toby Drummond (Burton Leonard CC)
Robin Fisher (Chester Boughton Hall)
Peter Richer (Thirplow CC)
Fionn Hand (Cricket Leinster)
Edward Jones (MCC)
Ryan Lewis. (Belvoir CC)
Adam Soilleux (Hadleigh and Thundersley CC)
Jack Parish (Buckingham Town CC)
Chris Watts — Umpire.
Saturday 30 November – MCC v SL Under 19 (T20)
Monday 2 December – MCC v SL Under 19 (ODI)
Tuesday 3 December- MCC v SL Combined (ODI)
Thursday 5 December – MCC v SL Senior (2 x T20)
Saturday 7 December – MCC v SL Combined Side (T20)
Sunday 8 December – MCC v SL Senior Side (ODI)
There is a real feel-good element in the development of cricket in Sierra Leone, despite (or because of) its vivid distance from the ostentatious expenditure of Franchise Cricket. Cricket is developing here because of the love of the game, and because it can play a part in the nation's healing. "There has been real growth in the last ten years", Emmanuel tells me. "In 2009, there were as few as five clubs in Sierra Leone, now we have about twelve men's clubs at top flight cricket, six women's clubs, a disabled club and youth teams." But the growth hasn't just been in participation, there has been substantial gain in support as well. The country is getting hooked and Kent Cricket Club is providing the bait.
Emmanuel has seen some real talent emerging from his club. For example, in 2018 Ann Marie Kamara won the "best batter of the tournament" having scored the highest runs in the Botswana Cricket Association Women's T20I Series , and Kent has a twelve-year-old spinner, Raymond Coker, who is already making headlines. But it isn't just providing players for the National teams that Emmanuel is focusing on. In 2012 Kent Cricket Club established the Dr Bob Thomas Cricket Scholarship Scheme "to offer educational opportunities to promising cricketers in Sierra Leone". Its primary goal is to "improve the career prospects of local children and with goals to help the national side to hold its young talent, by providing practical assistance such as funding for education and learning resources". The scheme's main drive is to develop cricket at grassroots level, with promising cricketers receiving the advantage of free schooling at all levels of education. Future plans to develop a Cricket Foundation are fuelled by a desire to use cricket as a vehicle for change, getting more people to play and using the game to "create a positive impact on the lives of young people living in Sierra Leone".
If you want to help support this mission then please do get in touch with Kent Cricket Club through their website or email Emmanuel Pessima the CEO at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is also information and a short video on the Kent County Cricket Club website.