Rwanda captain Clinton Rubagumya distinctly remembers the bellows from a previous national team coach as the country’s best cricketers repeatedly turned their head in the opposite direction during fielding practice.
“Why aren’t you looking at the ball?” the coach demanded. “But for us to survive, we had to play this type of way,” says Rubagumya.
Experience had necessitated a raft of idiosyncrasies upon Rwanda’s players.
Growing up only able to play cricket on dirt football pitches, a number of them had lost their front teeth courtesy of a ball hitting a rough patch and ricocheting dangerously upwards.
“So you learned to collect it with your face looking away,” explains Rubagumya.
He still remembers his first thought upon arriving for a match in South Africa a few years ago – his debut game outside of Rwanda: “This is a carpet! How can you get injured here?”
Few roads in qualification for the 2024 T20 World Cup have been as rocky or steep as that of Rwanda’s, the lowest-ranked side still in with a chance of competing in next year’s showpiece.
A country building back through cricket
Barely more than two decades ago, the sport did not exist in the country.
Before the horrifying 1994 genocide that saw 800,000 people – predominantly members of the minority Tutsi tribe – killed in 100 days, Rwanda was part of Francophone Africa, a bloc of French-speaking countries.
As numerous Rwandan refugees then returned from exile in English-speaking, cricket-playing countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the country’s leaders began a process of shedding its colonial past.
Over the years, Rwanda would become increasingly English – eventually joining the Commonwealth in 2009 – and what sport was more appropriate to solidify that relationship than cricket?
Yet such was the rudimentary nature of the cricketing landscape that until 2017, the only playing facility was located on the site of one of the biggest genocide massacres, with human bone fragments invariably found on the outfield.
The dizzying upwards curve to the cusp of a landmark global event began at the start of that decade, with the formation of a UK-based charity to raise money for the first international-standard stadium in the country.
At that point, recalls star batter and former captain Eric Dusingizimana, there were only 50 cricketers spread across three clubs. Now 24 clubs feature the best of tens of thousands who play across the country, with cricket increasingly taught in schools. “It’s a very, very big difference,” he says.
Dusingizimana’s role in the evolution has been greater than most. In May 2016, he broke the Guinness world record for the longest individual net session at a fundraiser for the stadium, which saw him face deliveries from the likes of Tony Blair and the reigning Miss Rwanda in a 51-hour marathon.
“It was incredibly hard but I did it for the cause,” he says. “I started at 8am on Wednesday and finished at 11am on Friday. After that I went home and slept for almost four days.”
The result was the world-class Gahanga International Cricket Stadium, built on the outskirts of the capital Kigali, which has been central to the huge shift in the country’s cricketing fortunes.
The stadium now regularly hosts international tournaments and Rubagumya says the attention he receives is incomparable even to recent years.
“Three or four years ago I would walk around with my kit and people would ask if I was playing tennis or golf,” he says. “Now I meet people and they say: ‘Oh, you are a cricketer’. People are starting to get the hang of the game.”
Divisions dissolve on the cricket field
In a country where a tragic past means genocide victims now stand side-by-side with perpetrators, sport is viewed as a unifying force for social cohesion.
It is considered rude – and potentially even deemed criminally ‘divisionist’ – to use the terms Hutu and Tutsi in the country. Instead, everyone is viewed simply as Rwandan.
“It’s amazed me how you play with so many people from different areas and no-one ever has an issue with where you’re from because we’re all so focused on cricket,” says Rubagumya, who was born the year after the genocide.
“I was very young so don’t have a judgement on how the tensions were in the country, but one thing I know for sure is when it comes to sport, those things are not there.”
Growing the sport from scratch, the Rwanda Cricket Association (RCA) has always ensured a women’s tournament takes place whenever possible to coincide with any men’s tournament.
The results of that broad equality have been astonishing. While the men’s team sit 62nd in the world T20I rankings, the women are a remarkable 25th.
Earlier this year, at the Under-19 Women’s T20 World Cup – the first time the nation had ever made a major ICC tournament at any level – the Rwandan debutants made headlines with spectacular victories over West Indies and Zimbabwe.
“The RCA always knew it would be much harder to get their men’s team way up the rankings, whereas there was an opportunity with the women,” explains men’s team head coach Lee Booth.
“And they just happened to find some astonishingly talented players. It’s amazing how it’s snowballed from there. Numbers have exploded.”
Booth, who hails from the small village of Thurstonland just outside Huddersfield, first travelled to Rwanda through the Cricket Without Boundaries charity in 2010. After multiple coaching trips to the country over the following dozen years, he was offered the head coach role on a short-term basis in June 2023.
Having arrived when the cricket structure was basic at best, Booth has first-hand experience of the huge turnaround. “When I was first here they had a national team but it was essentially expat Asian guys and a couple of Rwandans who they took along because they knew the national anthem,” he says.
“Now the team is entirely young, local Rwandan lads. The development of the game out here has been astonishing.”
Booth’s task now lies somewhere between the improbable and impossible. After defying expectations to reach the final stage of the 2024 T20 World Cup Africa Qualifier, over the next few days Rwanda will challenge some of the continent’s best players for one of two spots available at next year’s tournament.
The Rwandan amateurs – none of whom are yet make any money from cricket – will take on continental heavyweights Zimbabwe (ranked 11th in the world), plus hosts Namibia (12th), Uganda (23rd), Kenya (30th), Tanzania (32th) and Nigeria (38th).
“For us, the main challenge really was to get there,” says Rubagumya. “We’ll be playing against guys we’ve only ever watched on TV.
“We know realistically it’s not easy for us to qualify. However, we do feel there is something for us to play for. We may not have a lot to lose but we do have a lot to gain.”
And the dream? “It’s reaching the World Cup, my friend,” he adds, laughing. “Rwanda and Zimbabwe – the two nations qualifying.”
That would prove a fairytale ending to an already extraordinary story. Regardless, Rwanda’s cricketing journey is really only beginning.
|22 November v Kenya (07:30 GMT)|
|24 November v Nigeria (07:30 GMT)|
|25 November v Namibia (11:50 GMT)|
|27 November v Zimbabwe (07:30 GMT)|
|29 November v Tanzania (07:30 GMT)|
|30 November v Uganda (07:30 GMT)|