— The game of cricket is making a comeback in Sierra Leone and is inspiring young men in particular. Many young people who play are also being encouraged to stay in school by the local cricket association.
The temperature is 28 C in the afternoon as a coach shouts out commands to his cricket players at Sierra Leone's only cricket ground in the country's capital Freetown.
The players look intense, concentrating on their game. But this is not any random cricket game, this is different.
Several of these cricket players are playing not only for fun, but also to enhance their education and improve their lives. Osman Koroma, 18, is currently is homeless. "I am living around with my friends, so when I want to go to sleep, I say to my friends, 'Man, I am coming over' and I go and lay my head," he explained.
Koroma started playing cricket when he was just nine years old. He was having trouble in school and decided to try it as a hobby.
His family did not like him playing though, because they were worried it would interfere more with his studies. They told him he had to leave the house if he continued playing.
By then the sport was his passion, so he chose to leave home. The Sierra Leone Cricket Association
stepped in and encouraged him to stay in school and still play cricket.
The Association even helped with his school fees. Koroma says cricket has helped him stay more focused, because he says the game is all about discipline. He has competed in several West African tournaments, and encourages other young men to take up the game. "Let them come and find a way out, to play sports, cricket, it is a game played all over the world," he stated. "A responsible game."
Usman Thomas Sankoh, 17, is another youth struggling because he could not afford his school fees.
The Sierra Leone Cricket Association also helped him pay his fees and encouraged him to play cricket. He is now a strong bowler and batman.
Speaking in his native Krio language Sankoh said the game of cricket helped pick him up from the gutter and brought him to life. He is grateful for that.
SLCA CEO Francis Samura is one of the driving forces behind helping keep youth in school, while playing cricket. Through playing cricket he also gained self confidence when he was a teenager. Now he wants to help others. "I have the focus that I must do better in life, I must be somebody who can contribute to development, of my country, develop myself and help other people," Samura said. "So I am an example to the youth."
Samura says with so many youth unemployed in the country, 70 percent according to the World Bank, there is a desperate need for youth to stay in school. He says the majority of money to help pay for players' school fees comes from the Sierra Leone government and the International Cricket Council.
Samura also wants youth to understand the history and significance the game has had on the country.
Sierra Leone is a former British colony, and the game was first introduced by the British Royal Artillery in 1898. The sport thrived among the British and the people of Sierra Leone.
Ainor Emmanuel Scott, a veteran player who first started playing as a young boy in the 1960's, remembers how popular cricket was back then and says often the British and locals would play together on the same teams. "It is a game that will mold you into a gentleman," he said.
But it was not always like this. The game completely stopped during the country's civil war in the 1990's, which lasted a decade. During that time almost all cricket grounds were destroyed.
It has taken a lot of patience and hard work to bring the game back. The field these young cricketers in Freetown play on has no grass and there is no fence, but they make it work.
Scott says he is pleased to see so many young people taking an interest in the sport again and he spends much of his time coaching young players too.
And the young players today are making an impact. These days more than 4,000 young people are involved in cricket throughout Sierra Leone.
Players are unfazed by the challenge, and the SCLA's Francis Samura says they are hoping to qualify for the International Cricket Council Under-19 World Cup in February 2014.
The SLCA also hopes to encourage a West African tournament in the Gambia sometime in March.