I was strangely invited to play in an annual cricket match held in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve last week. I say strangely because I haven’t played cricket since the under twelves. And I wasn’t much good then. But with the Cricket World Cup about to begin and a chance to visit one of the world’s most incredible landscapes, the opportunity seemed too good to miss.
Mara is a Maasai word meaning mottled — the region is a patchwork of grasslands and trees. South of the border in Tanzania, the Mara becomes Serengeti National Park.
This is the scene of the world’s largest annual migration — even in the low season there are wildebeest up to your eyeballs. On the morning of the match I was woken by an elephant uncomfortably close to my tent.
The setting for the game was a private farm within the reserve. Having a cricket field on your property is unusual in Kenya — not to mention the pavilion and bar. I had been expecting a pretty amateur set up, but aside from the concrete pitch and the occasional gazelle we could have been in county England.
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Our hosts and benefactors also accommodated some rather unusual pets. One soon gets used to a tame impala nuzzling the hay bale you are sitting on, or frolicking with the spaniels — but when a 600kg eland does the same thing it can be disconcerting. When a serval invaded the pitch and began prowling the outfield it was clear things had gotten very strange indeed.
And so to the cricket. The house rules in the Mara are slightly different than those employed by the ICC. There are ten men a side and two innings of twenty overs for each team. To democratize the performance — and accommodate a talent pool as mottled as the landscape — each player must bowl two overs per innings. Batsmen must retire at 25, although they are allowed to return to the crease if their team is out with overs remaining.
But in the hot Kenyan sun the rule change which has the biggest impact on the game is almost certainly the liberal inclusion of alcohol. Beers in the outfield are obligatory. Shots of local liquor are awarded as penalties for dropped catches, misfields or unreasonable appeals. To say the standard of cricket dropped somewhat as the day progressed is to put it very mildly indeed.
In the end the match came down to the last over. The Mara home side needed 14 from it with one wicket in hand. Six extras from the visitors helped them on their way. Mara scored the winning runs from the last ball of the day.
The ICC World Cup may stand accused of being both long and meaningless — accusations often associated with cricket. But as TV audiences tune in to disposable games in the subcontinent, in southern Kenya the sport retains a distinctly local feeling. And it is a lot of fun.
Life in the Mara retains some of the glamour of the Happy Valley days when Kenya’s colonial set seemed exclusively made up of womanizing barons and cuckolded earls. Or perhaps it is more of sense of Boy’s Own adventure. During our match new guests — and even a couple of middle order batsmen — periodically arrived by light airplane. One distinguished gentlemen — the father of the farm owner — flew so low over the wicket that players had to dive for cover.
The good people of the Maasai Mara might not be great at cricket, but they can certainly have a good time. And all of it without the spectacle of Ricky Ponting in a bedazzled rickshaw.