Ugandan cricketers see Maharashtra, Gujarat as escape from addiction, crime back home

Updated: Feb 26, 2020, 10:48 IST | Harit N Joshi | Chikhli (Gujarat)

A 16-member team of young players touring Gujarat and Maharashtra sees cricket as an avenue to escape addiction, crime and the dark side of life back home

The Uganda national cricket team warm up at the Mohanlal Desai ground in Chikhli on Sunday/picture courtesy: Harit N Joshi
The Uganda national cricket team warm up at the Mohanlal Desai ground in Chikhli on Sunday/picture courtesy: Harit N Joshi

The youngsters of the African nation Uganda can easily be victims of drug and alcohol abuse. But there is an avenue to keep them away from the dark alleys and points of no return — cricket.

A bunch of Ugandans are visiting the western region of India for a 10-day cricket tour, with a majority of playing and practice activity happening at the Param Veer Academy at Sanjay Farms, 65 km away from Surat.

Left-arm spinner Gerald Mubiru, 21, is getting his action and follow through right. It's hot enough to make him bowl without a shirt. He is also keeping a close eye on his 'brother'—former skipper Roger Mukasa, 30,— batting in the nets, facing a bowling machine.

Uganda's left-arm spinner Gerald Mubiru prepares to bowl in the nets at Sanjay Farms, Chikhli recently. Pics/Harit N Joshi
Uganda's left-arm spinner Gerald Mubiru prepares to bowl in the nets at Sanjay Farms, Chikhli recently. Pics/Harit N Joshi

Mukasa, who played in the 2006 U-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, may not be Mubiru's brother in a real sense.

Mubiru, a school student, owes a lot to cricket and Mukasa. "I am able to lead a good life because of cricket and my brother Mukasa," says the player who is part of a 16-member Uganda team on a tour, comprising six 40-over matches (two in Saphale, Maharashtra) and four at the Mohanlal Desai Cricket Ground, Chikhli.

According to reports, Uganda is facing a major problem dealing with drug and substance abuse. A study has revealed that 60 to 70 per cent students use illicit drugs in schools. Mubiru could have been one of them had he not found a mentor and guide in Mukasa.

Captain Brian Masaba
Captain Brian Masaba

"When I was in primary school, my friends would lure and force me to take drugs. I tried it a few times, but luckily I understood it is not good for the body and mind. I changed my school and got involved with cricket. Thankfully, I am leading a disciplined life. I look up to Mukasa. He is my guide and inspires me to play cricket like him," says Mubiru.

Escape route
The Uganda captain for the India tour, Brian Masaba speaks from personal experience of how cricket is seen as an escape route. "We are a third world country. We lose a lot of youth to criminality, drugs and guns. That's a problem we are trying to tackle, but when they are in a cricket team, they are sort of streamlined and there are strict rules.

"Cricket has kept me away from a lot of bad stuff like alcohol, drugs and anti-social elements. I am either studying, working or playing cricket which has helped stay away from the bad stuff. A lot of guys come from tough backgrounds; have a tough childhood. So, for them, cricket is an escape. It teaches them discipline. There is a lot of hard work and dedication. All these values will help them in life," says Masaba, who started as a medium fast bowler, but plays more as a batsman and leg-spinner in the team.

Uganda Cricket Association chief executive Martin Ondeko provides a glimpse into the struggle of the players. "Most players can't even afford two meals a day. Some of them are breadwinners for their families. Cricket has given them a lifeline. Some stepped on an airplane [to come to India] for the first time. Some have broken families. Cricket has given them an opportunity to either come out from criminality or stay away from drugs," he says.

Poverty is another issue that Ugandans are grappling with. While they do not fail to latch on to any means of income, when it comes to earning through sports, football and athletics are most preferred. Cricket is placed, "around fifth or sixth" according to Ondeko.

Uganda boasts of just two cricket grounds. As far as training facilities are concerned, a bowling machine is a distant dream. Until last year, the national team did not have any personal kit; they had a common kitbag. When they visited Sanjay Farms last year, former India women's team coach Tushar Arothe donated three sets of kits to the players.

Known as Cricket Cranes, the Uganda team do fielding drills with coach Mahesh Hatkar. At the lunch table, the players are sporting different jerseys. One with a Royal Challengers Bangalore t-shirt, another an England national training jersey and for the rest, football jerseys.

Not much scope
"It is tough playing cricket in Uganda. There is not much money. Most of them are playing for the love of the game. There is not enough scope to become a professional cricketer in Uganda because most of them are studying and playing or working and playing. We have to juggle a lot," says Masaba, who works in a pharmaceutical company and thanks his boss for granting him leave during matches and tours.

It was tough for Masaba to convince his parents to allow him to play cricket after spending the initial years trying to break into the football set up. "Obviously, it was tough to convince my parents. They only know about football and basketball. Along the way, they saw the benefits. It has sort of streamlined my life. It also kept me away from the bad stuff. Now, representing the country is a source of pride. There is no bigger joy than this for them," he says.

The Ugandans are using the India tour to prepare for next month's Africa T20 Cup in Nairobi and the ICC T20 World Cup Qualifiers scheduled from April 25 to May 4 (venue undecided).

In July-August, Uganda will host the second leg of the ICC Cricket World Cup Challenge League B in Kampala. They will look to continue their winning run after beating Oman 5-0 in the first leg last December.

For Uganda to progress to the ICC World Cup qualifiers playoffs, they will look to stay on top in the third leg of the Challenge League B. This will bring them closer to ODI status, their much-cherished dream at the moment for which they have to end up in the Top Four. "We are trying to get as much game-time and exposure. We are playing in different conditions and trying to adapt to different situations. Hopefully, God will help us achieve ODI status," says a beaming Masaba.

To become an ODI nation will not only be an important milestone, it will further rid Uganda from the clutches of a social life, which is, as the saying goes, just not cricket.

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