By Abiodun Adewale.
From helping his mother sell food around Igbosere Road, Lagos Island, Ridwan Abdulkareem found his way to cricket at 13 and has made tremendous growth in five years from a rookie to a national team player.
Growing up in an environment that houses the Tafawa Balewa Cricket Oval; the home of league matches as well as training ground for national team players, Abdulkareem had always been close to the game but couldn’t manage to express his interest.
As fate would have it, he was to deliver food to coach Leke Oyede, who is now the coach of the female national team at the oval. At the risk of being punished for running late, he took his time at the ground to watch a game, and that was how he was invited to keep coming to the training. Fortunately for him, his mother did not object as coach Leke was also a neighbour.
“I’ve been playing cricket since then and it has really helped me because I wasn’t born into a rich family. So, the little I’m getting from cricket I used to give my mom, so, she could support her business as well,” Abdulkareem told PUNCH Sports Extra.
In 2019, the Nigeria Cricket Federation began its annual U-17 championship and the 14-year-old lad then was among the players that represented the South-West team. Being his first exposure, his performance wasn’t up to par, but he had another chance in 2021.
“I didn’t play well and I was dropped from the national U-19 squad because of that. So, I went back home to train very hard and made sure I corrected all my mistakes,” he said.
“Then the second edition of the U-17 in 2021, I came back strong and I was called again for the national U-19 trials and I made the trip to Rwanda. That’s when I knew the level of international and local competitions. So, I started practicing every time because I saw the level that I needed to be to remain in the national team.”
From the national championship in 2021, Abdulkareem was discovered by Sri Lankan coach, Asanka Gurusinha, who was then in Nigeria. He was then invited for trials into the senior national team and just like his time at the U-19 level, he didn’t get the opportunity at the first trial, as he was listed just a place below the required 14-man shortlist for a tournament in Uganda.
His chance, however, came by fate again, few months later as he made his senior debut against Sierra Leone during a bilateral series in October 2021 and then became a part of the team for the 2024 T20i World Cup qualifiers in Rwanda in December 2022.
“When they came back from the tour, we had a series with Sierra Leone, so, the 16-man list was called to camp and I was the 15th person. Two guys were injured and I was brought into the 14-man list for the series and the match I was given a chance to play I did well.
“Eventually, I made the team for the World Cup qualifiers in Rwanda. I played all the matches. From there I have been working hard because I know what’s at stake to be with the senior players,” he noted.
Still part of the U-19 team as well, Abdulkareem and his teammates will later this year play in the division one of the World Cup qualifiers in Tanzania.
“After we came back from Rwanda for the senior team tournament, we went back again because we had a trial and I was able to fit in the U-19 team as well. The tournament was also in Rwanda, but we couldn’t win any game. Good for us, we were ready again as Nigeria later hosted the qualifiers and we won all our matches except the final. So, we are through to the division one of the U-19 World Cup qualifiers.”
Now 18 years old, Abdulkareem hasn’t only grown in stature. His mindset is preoccupied with what he has to do to keep his head up and turn the fortunes of his family around with his dream of playing cricket at the highest level while he is also combining education with the game at the moment.
“Thanks to cricket, I am currently studying Human Kinetics and I want to play cricket for a long time and see myself playing in one of the biggest leagues out there and also in the Indian Premier League,” he said.