February 25th 2018

Sports / Profiles

One on one with Kenya’s number one cricket umpire

While he concedes that cricket remains too much of an elite sport, he points to big beneficiaries of his development program. Peterson Kamau, who schooled at Roysambu, and Peter Koech from Nakuru, are among a growing number of young sters from outside the traditional cricket catchment areas.

By Olika MuyelaFriday, 03 Jun 2016 14:34 EAT

Pamba in action at an international cricket game (Photo: Courtesy)

David Odhiambo is Kenya’s number one cricket umpire. For close to six years he has sat at the elite club of world cricket umpires. Better known as ‘Pamba’, Odhiambo has been a member of the Associate and Affiliate Panel at the International Cricket Council, the senior-most rank a Kenyan can rise to in the profession.

Pamba was the second Kenyan to have been appointed to that rank (better known as the A&A Panel), following in the footsteps of Subhash Modi, who served earlier and is now retired.

The ICC, which governs cricket worldwide, has three categories for international umpires, namely the AA Panel, the International Panel and the Elite Panel. The latter two categories are more senior to the A&A, but they are reserved for umpires from ten test playing countries which are full members of the ICC: Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies, and Zimbabwe.

For the International Panel, each of the ten countries select two umpires, and from among these 20 umpires, 12 most experienced ones are selected to the Elite Panel.

The AA Panel is open to umpires from all countries where the ICC recognizes that cricket is either firmly entrenched or is played in accordance with the laws of cricket set by the Council. The Panel is therefore very competitive, and its members, especially those from non-test playing countries, compete to officiate at high caliber international matches.

For a game loved by billions of people around the world, cricket has only 68 elite umpires, of whom only nine are Africans. It is the top sport in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, West Indies and a number of British overseas territories, and commands gigantic corporate sponsorship.

Being one of the most experienced A&A members, Pamba has had a remarkable record, officiating at the Under 20 World Cup in 2014, ICC World Cup qualifiers in 2015, several one day internationals, and County Championship matches in the UK.

Pamba gave us an interview last month about his cricket experience. What emerged was a story of hard work, learning and diligence not customarily associated with many sports referees.

As a cricket game can last up to seven hours, an umpire spends more time on the pitch than any other sports referee. “Staying on the pitch is more professional, so the umpire needs to manage his or her fluids well to make the time,” he told us.

Like in any sport, a cricket umpire administers the game, but his tools are more complex than commonly found in sports. The umpires have no cards or whistles and do not take the scores. They communicate decisions by signals.

Even preliminary duties like checking field and ball standards and making the toss before matches can have enormous impact on a game since weather conditions have a significant effect on the outcome of a cricket match.

Pamba has demonstrated high level tenacity and grasp of the 42 laws that rule the game which is evident when he talks about them, stating them by their numbers. “That’s one of my high selling points.”

His professionalism speaks for itself for he always stays on the field mentally and physically respecting the specified durations and match intervals.

The officiating requirements for a cricket match comprises: two umpires, two scorers, one match referee, one reserve umpire, and, in case of televised games, a TV umpire.

Pamba joined the game by accident. Born in Nairobi in 1976, his father hawked groundnuts and mangoes, especially at cricket game venues, and travelled regularly between Nyanza and Nairobi.

He began his education at Dirubi Primary School in Nyanza, but in 1987, when Kenya hosted the All Africa Games, his father felt that he needed an extra hand and, during the school holidays, called the 11 year old Pamba to Nairobi. A year later, Pamba settled permanently in Nairobi and joined St Paul’s Primary School, Mbotela, in class five.

He visited the Nairobi Gymkhana Club often to see his uncle who worked and resided within the complex. He became interested in the game, and used to go with other children to watch over weekends. He was intrigued by many things. Unlike in a football match, which many children are familiar with, players had the same white uniforms. The referee had no whistle, there were no red cards, there was no way of knowing the scores, people just shouted.

One of the players at Nairobi Gymkhana, David Waters, spotted the children and wanted to help them. Waters encouraged Pamba and other boys to play or, to stop the ball. “We were stopping the balls with the soles of our shoes,” Pamba recalls. Little did he know that he was becoming a fielder.

Mr Waters, whom the players fondly called as Maji, was impressed by their interest and gave them more incentives. “He would give us old clothes and shoes for training,” he said. After the training sessions Odhiambo would stay behind and listen to advice being given to players. The passion kept growing massively and before he knew it he was hooked.

By 1992, he began playing for Gymkhana. Cricket was all he thought about away from school. The following year he joined St Teresa’s High School, Eastleigh, a better part of his school fees was paid through cricket.

After high school, he became a full time player. But Gymkhana was then an elite cub; they had eight players in the national team, and Pamba found the place too competitive that he never made it to the first team. “I never broke to be a key player because of limited coaching. Not being so talented, I needed significant tuition and guidance to realize my potential.”

Being on the fringes, he played only once in a while, being used mainly as a scorer. He didn’t understand scoring initially but the bosses encouraged him to learn. So many times, instead of playing he was asked to score.

The big break for him came in 1994, when he scored in the one day international (ODI) between Kenya and The Netherlands.

In 1997, the Kenya Scorers and Umpires Association ran two courses in umpiring and scoring, for which Subhash Modi recommended him. Pamba did well in both, hence qualifying as a certified scorer and umpire.

With his path paved, he continued to rise, undertaking an ICC umpiring course in Malaysia in 2005 with Modi. Over the years, he has perfected his skills through practical umpiring.

For his inspiration, Pamba looked to Simon Taufel, a reputed umpire coach from Australia, and Modi, who encouraged him. “Subhash is a fair and strict man who believes in teamwork and giving people opportunity to do what they are good at,” Pamba told us.

He’s also gotten immense help along the way from the Kenya Association of Scorers and Umpires, which assists members through training, seminars and provision of reading material.

Since 2009, when he joined Cricket Kenya, where he currently serves as a development manager, Pamba had had a big influence on a new generation of umpires, nurturing the likes of Isaac Oyieko, who joined the ICC panel this year, Charles Kariuki, Maxwell Okello, Nicholas Otieno and his brother Bernard Ouko, all of whom are well regarded in the field.

To new umpires, he recommends the virtues of hard work, man management skills, self-belief and continuous learning. “At the end of every game, people should be contented with your work,” he says.

At Cricket Kenya, he is responsible for running coaching in schools, mainly in Nairobi, Nakuru and Mombasa. His teams have reached out to previously marginalized areas, giving opportunities to more youngsters to take up the game.

While he concedes that cricket remains too much of an elite sport, he points to big beneficiaries of his development program at Cricket Kenya. Peterson Kamau, who schooled at Roysambu, and Peter Koech from Nakuru, are among a growing number of youngsters from outside the traditional cricket catchment areas.

This development mirrors events on the international scene, where the ICC is also rapidly expanding cricket in countries that never knew the game. The A&A Panel where Pamba sits has been expanding in tandem. In 2011 when Pamba joined the Panel, it had only 11 umpires, now there are 36. The expansion allowed two more Kenyans, Isaac Oyieko and Rockie D’Mello, join the Panel two months ago.

Pamba is also paying increased attention to women cricket, that falls under his development portfolio. The Kenya women’s team nearly qualified for the 2010 World Cup, beating the feared Zimbabwe only to lose to Uganda at the last minute in the net run rate.

Pamba disagrees with the common perception that Kenyan cricket standards are falling. “This view is based on the performance of the national team. But a lot is happening away from the limelight. More Kenyans are taking up cricket,” he said, giving the example of students from Roysambu.

The opening up of Rugby and Hockey has seen a big shift of power in these sports, which are now being dominated by teams from areas like Kakamega and Kisumu, unlike in the past when Nairobi reigned supreme.

Despite all these, he’s contented to live in relative anonymity beyond cricket circles. Sports referees generally don’t get recognition unless there are problems. Before big matches, media and public attention is on the big players. Even in football, fans remember referees only for contentious decisions that lead to protests, abandonment or crowd trouble.

Olika is a staff writer at the Kenya Free Press

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