On a bright, sunny Friday afternoon in January 1990, pall bearers were seen somberly stepping out of Nairobi’s Holy Family Basilica carrying a coffin bedecked with flowers. Nothing unusual – and yet not quite usual! Amongst the pall bearers were fit young men with an athletic stride, they looked lost yet strangely focused.
Their faces were familiar to those of us who peruse the sporting pages of the Monday newspapers – Tom Tikolo, Kennedy Odhiambo and the entire ensemble of stars of the Kenyan cricket world. And in the coffin they were so respectfully carrying lay the remains of their mentor, their guardian, their role model. It was none other than the Father of African cricket. The man who nurtured the young African lads and guided them to stardom. The man who established Kenya’s very first African XI. His name was Robert Bresson – Bob to his friends.
Bob was a larger than life figure, physically and figuratively. Tall and burly, he had a bear-like presence with a huge smile, and cuddly. Determined and courageous, he navigated his dream in an often unfriendly terrain – a dream to see cricket become an African sport. The lone black in a community of browns and whites, ever cheerful and undaunted and with no ‘colour’ hang-ups he strode over the fences erected in a segregated colony and its post-independent hangovers. Being Seychellois was not always easy as they were considered ‘chotara’ – it is an acknowledgement of Robert Bresson’s over-riding humanity that he was loved and respected by all. His best friend was an Englishman, William Hellen.
Bob’s mother was Seychellois, a people made up from a mix of African, Indian, Chinese and European. At one time the French used the Seychelle Islands as a penal colony for the ‘elite’, as well as slaves and pirates. So it is not surprising that some perceive the Seychellois as ‘Asian’ some as Africans and some just as ‘chotaras’. In 1954 one newspaper lauded Bob as an ‘Asian footballer’ with ‘a strong shot in either foot, and remarkable skill with his napper’.
In spite of this rather varied ancestry, Bob Bresson himself felt one hundred per cent Kenyan and African. Bob was born in Nairobi on November 22 January, 1927. He was one of five children, brothers Tony, Marc and Gerald and sister Antonia. At some point the name ‘Bresson’ was adopted from his mother’s side.
Bob’s primary schooling was at the Catholic Parochial School in the grounds of the present day Holy Family Basilica where students attend the school to this day. On completion of his stint at primary school, Bob was accepted as a technical maintenance apprentice in the then British Air Force. There he moved up the career ladder into the engineering field and in 1965 left to join Hughes Ltd, the car firm where he stayed for a full thirty years; moving up to become Workshop Manager.
Since his early years Bob was interested in sports. In 1948 he was playing soccer for Seychelles United, a Nairobi club in the Juja/Pangani area where the family stayed. He became sports secretary of the Seychellois Welfare Association and, as coach and manager, made the Seychellois Football Team ‘one of the leading teams in Kenya’.
Very atypical of the Seychellois community, Bob also took up the game of cricket. It was a move from the rough and hard game of soccer where every move is linked to that of your team mates and speed and stamina are key - to the slow paced, genteel, highly disciplined non-contact sport of cricket, often viewed as ‘soft’! Bob took to the game like a fish in water and became the first black man to play cricket in Kenya, perhaps in East Africa. He rose to become one of the finest left-arm bowlers who bowled with pace, fire and hostility, and was capable of setting complex manoeuvres with the ball.
His work at Hughes Ltd was a necessary activity to fulfil his basic needs, but his heart was always in sports. As soon as the bell for closing time rang; Bob was off to a cricket ground to live his love. The earliest record of him playing competitive sport is in 1955 when he played in the Seychelles United versus the Roving Rovers for the Amberly Cup. That same year he participated in the hugely popular annual Asians v European cricket match, playing on the Asian side.
Hughes Ltd had its own Ford/Mazda cricket team which competed in the Commercial Cricket League. The League was founded in the early fifties specifically to enable cricketers who could not get into a club team to play regular cricket. It morphed into a competition between various commercial firms such as Hughes, Caltex, Prisons, Tuskers, Ready Kilowatt, East African Tobacco, Galsheet and many others. Bob captained the Hughes team which won the League on several occasions. In the match against East African Airways he took seven wickets for only one run.
In spite of his personal success, Bob was constantly concerned about the total absence of African cricketers. One day over a ‘baada ya mchezo or two’, Bob and Mambo Gichuki of the East African Standard noted that ‘without Kenyans of African origin the game would die’. Bob had noticed African youngsters avidly watching, from outside the ground perimeter, the cricket being played in the Sir Ali Sports Club; and decided to take them under his wing. In the League’s training ground in Park Road he started coaching them. He provided them with basic equipment to replace the corn cobs and wooden planks they were using. Such was their talent and his dedication that in no time he established an African XI – the first in East Africa.
African cricketers started playing in the Commercial League as early as 1961 but it was not until 1976 that an all-African XI burst onto the club scene with much prominence. It comprised of Robert Bresson (Captain), Kenneth Odhiambo (Vice-captain), Edward Sempebwa, Thomas Ochieng, David Ntengo, Isaac Khamasi, Frederic Otieno, Tom Tikolo, Frederic Omara, Alfred Hinga, Joseph C’Opak, Wellington Khamasi and Paul Tikolo.
It was a proud and immensely satisfying moment for Bob. And way back then he declared that ‘his lads’ were as good as, if not better than, the West Indian boys. Unfortunately he did not live to see the 1996 World Cup played in India when the Kenyans trumped the Calypso Kings and stunned the cricket world. And playing for Kenya were eight Africans: Maurice Odumbe (captain), Steve Tikolo, Kennedy Otieno, Thomas Odoyo, Lameck Onyango, Edward Odumbe, Martin Owiti and David Tikolo. And as if to say ‘thank you to Bob’, this team played a Memorial Cricket Match at Impala Club before departing for India.
Tom Tikolo was one of Bob’s most promising protégés as were Kenneth Odhiambo, Alfred Hinga, D Ireri, A Onyango and others. In 1976 too, Alfred Hinga made history when he qualified as the first African first-class umpire. Four years later the nineteen-year old Tom Tikolo was chosen to play in the Kenya national cricket team for the East and Central African championship in Zambia. He became the first African to have made it to the national team.
About the same time, Bob contacted Robbie Armstrong, a European cricketer, and together they formed the Wanderer’s Club – the first multi-racial cricket club in Kenya. ‘A gentle, friendly little club in Karura forest,’ is how one newspaper described it. Bob was the ‘rock’ of the club – his son Robby remembers having to help his mother make tea and sandwiches for ‘the boys’ for the weekend matches.
Bob joined the Suleman Verjee Indian Gymkhana in 1959 and represented Kenya the same year and throughout the sixties. He played against visiting teams from South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and England. In 1965, Bob was ranked one of Kenya’s three pace bowlers. The early matches were organised by the Asian Sports Association which was founded in 1912. The Kenya Cricket Association (KCA) was formed in 1953.
H Collins, chair of the KCA, often requested Bob to play for him when he was not available. In 1958, Prem Krishen, the Commissioner for India, invited Bob to play for his team, the Commissioner for India’s XI against a visiting South African team. In October, 1961 H E the Governor, Sir Patrick Renison invited Bob to be a member of His Excellency’s Cricket XI in a match against F R Brown’s XI to be played at the Nairobi Club.
A high point in Bob’s cricketing career was the February-March 1971 tour to India where Nairobi Gymkhana (Suleman Verjee Indian Gymkhana had been renamed) played matches in Hyderabad, Bombay, Surat and Ahmedabad. Bob joined a team of twenty Asian cricket players to compete against the local Indian cricket associations, the Bombay Gymkhana and the Air-India team. It was a challenging experience with much to learn and to achieve.
Though affable and non-confrontational, Bob stood his ground when necessary. In a match between Wanderers and Premier in 1977, he, as captain of Wanderers, protested that he had not been consulted about an administrative decision made by the umpire. ‘It is [always] the umpire who is the villain, never the player,’ retorted Brian Tetley, the umpire in question. And it so happened that Brian went on to become a great admirer of Bob and it was he who wrote the obituaries when the ‘great’ Bresson passed away. Earlier Bob and Brian together wrote the tribute to Charanjive Sharma, calling him ‘the magic genie of bat and ball’.
In 1956 Bob married Florrie Star, a Seychellois woman in Nairobi. The couple were blessed with three children: Linda , Robby and Nicole. Robby is now a film-maker who is planning to produce a documentary on his Dad. The children accompanied their Dad to the cricket grounds and got into various sports but did not take up any seriously. At some clubs they did not feel very welcome; for example in spite of being members they were required to get permission to use the swimming pool. But like their dad, they laughed at life’s challenges and the pettiness of their detractors.
Jaffery Sports Club of Mombasa organised a Veterans Invitational game in 1982 and called it ‘Down Memory Lane’. Some very illustrious cricketers of the past were on parade and Bob was one of them. He attended a dinner hosted by Sir Ali Muslim Club to bid farewell to Kenya’s great all-rounder, Zulfikar, who was emigrating.
By the eighties as age caught up with him, Bob moved into administrative and managerial roles in several organisations, as well as serving as an umpire. He was honorary member of the Kongonis Cricket Club, Executive member of the KCA Council, Chair of the KCA Coaching committee and Selector for the national cricket side. At the time of his death he had been named as the Kenya Coach.
The cricketing fraternity was deeply shocked by the sudden demise of Robert Bresson, while at work on 27 January, 1990. Popularly known, respected and loved as Bob, he was not only a great cricketer but a remarkable sportsman – a visionary who changed the face of cricket in Kenya. The next day as a mark of respect, a one minute silence was observed before the start of the match between Swamibapa and Aga Khan in the second semi-final of the Golden Falcon Trophy KCA senior knockout tournament.
In his obituary Brian Tetley stated that he had known only three cricketers who never thought a game – or life – was lost no matter what the odds until they left the field, and Bob was one of them. In 1978 he had described him as having ‘a pure ebony and cherubic’ face in which ‘the laughter lines never vanish’. ‘Bob radiated happiness even when you dropped his catches and he swore, often loudly,’ he wrote. Bob’s never-say-die spirit illuminated the meaning of determination and perseverance and will long be remembered by those who knew him.