ABUJA, Nigeria, Had a young Sylvester Okpe not been so fond of wandering off, then perhaps Nigeria’s journey into new territory would never have been possible.

For it was while being distracted during an Independence Day celebration that Okpe, teeming with interest, stumbled across a group playing with bat and ball.

Curiosity got the better of him, so he asked what those running back and forth over 22 yards were up to. And in doing so, he had his first introduction to cricket.

Fast forward just a handful of years, and Okpe’s determination to try something new isn’t ending there. Only this time, he’ll do so as Nigeria captain at the ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup in South Africa from January 17 to February 9.

In a country where football dominates the sporting agenda, the 19-year-old’s story of stumbling into cricket is not a unique one.

Throughout the squad representing their country at South Africa 2020 Nigeria’s first global cricket competition very few had even seen the sport before first picking up a bat.

Some didn’t have shoes, let alone kit or equipment, for a game seen by teachers and parents as an easy way out of lessons.

For some, support from family and outside sources was minimal, with humble and sometimes poor backgrounds putting sport in perspective.

British colonial masters and missionaries first brought cricket to Nigeria in the 1900s but it’s taken time to flourish, stalling in the latter stages of the 20th century following independence.

But the past 20 years have seen the tide turn, the game brought back to life as previously active and passionate individuals rekindled their love. Only this time, they were determined to get it right for good.

The Nigeria Cricket Foundation (NCF) helped pave the way, not only bringing the talent to the fore but finding time for player welfare, sporting education, mentality and professionalism.

The result, clear for all to see, is players such as Okpe: he was only 15 when first brought into the Under-19 squad and hadn’t yet turned 16 when he was made captain.

By this time, coaches and management were taking their approaches long-term, with his appointment inspired by West Indies’ selection of Jason Holder as ODI skipper when aged 23.

Such a step-up would disrupt most but the talented teenager took it in his stride, his captaincy as important as the right-arm offbreak bowling that the Under-19 side have relied upon.

So too have Nigeria’s senior team, with Okpe named vice-captain for the 2019 T20 World Cup Qualifier.

Such leadership has been integral and the unity paid dividends on the pitch too, as the team went unbeaten in Division Two of Under-19 World Cup qualification.

In March 2019 with a place at the Under-19 World Cup on the line it was to get even better.

By their own admission, not even those at the heart of Nigeria’s journey had expected them to progress at such an impressive rate, with the following generation set to be the benchmark for success.

But Okpe and his side weren’t ones for waiting, going into Namibia’s backyard and beating the hosts in the opening game in Windhoek.

Batting first and scoring 129 for eight from 50 overs was far from a perfect start to life in Division One, particularly with just one team from six qualifying for South Africa.

But this Nigeria side is one of determination, and true to form it was the captain who delivered figures of 3/16 helped skittle Namibia for 77 and the result sent shockwaves around the tournament.

The Junior Yellow Greens have not looked back since a tense two-wicket win over Sierra Leone securing their Under-19 World Cup place, having been 91/7 in their chase of 139.

It may have been a surprise to those watching but Nigeria, from humble beginnings, have long been a side with confidence after years of physical and mental preparation

So what of South Africa 2020 and Nigeria’s ground-breaking steps in cricket? A minimum of three games await but no challenge has come close to this one.

In Australia, England and West Indies, each of their Group B opponents have won the Cricket World Cup at least once, and the Under-19 Cricket World Cup five times between them.

In doing so, they’ve produced Steve Smith, Ben Stokes and Brian Lara all esteemed alumni of Under-19 cricket with players heading to Africa desperate for career-defining breakthroughs of their own.

One win would therefore be a huge achievement for a country with such limited cricket history, but Okpe and his proud nation head across the continent knowing games are won on the pitch, not on paper.

And on a journey that few before them have ever taken, they aren’t ready to stop wandering any time soon.

Source: African News Agency