Richard and Tony in ceremonial dress

Tour of Nigeria by Richard Tyler & Tony Hughes

This article first appeared in the Eton Fives Association Annual Report 1988/89

Planning a venture into the unknown

It is a quarter of a century since the white man played Eton Fives in Africa; thus with India and Australia now firmly established Richard and I decided as long ago as July 1987 that this had to be the next assignment.

One does wonder how to establish contact with a Country that is known to play Eton Fives, but with whom you have not been in touch for many years, and the obvious answer is to ring up the Secretary of the Fives Association of Nigeria and suggest a visit. This is, in fact, what we should have done, but being naive and inexperienced we tackled the delights of the Nigerian High Commission in London, where our efforts met with considerable failure. We were not, however, deterred, and, being considerably resourceful, we at last managed to get our correspondence routed to the correct channels and in September 1988 contact had been re-established and a visit was lined up with a three week tour of Nigeria over the Christmas vacation.

Neither of us knew what to expect. Were the courts built of mud? Do they still play with tennis balls and just how many courts exist? Correspondence between the two Countries is not always easy and therefore we were not able to establish all our answers before departure on the 17th December, but we seemed to establish that the courts were now brick built and that the Nigerians were busily practicing with the Fives gloves and balls which we had arranged to send out in advance, with the considerable assistance of the now involved Nigerian High Commission.

As relatively experienced Fives travellers, we adopted the maxim of travelling with the airline of the Country you are visiting. This proved to be an error, and the flight to Kano by Nigerian Airways will remain in our minds for many years. It required a considerable amount of our combined resources to physically get on the plane and we only escaped from the check-in desk via the same route as our luggage- namely down the baggage shute!

Tour Programme

The very impressive and detailed programme, which we received two days before our departure, showed that we were playing in seven main centres and that in between we would attend a substantial number of formal dinners, meeting Emirs, Waziris and other dignitaries, as well as making a series of formal speeches. As mere Fives players, this came as a bit of a shock, but we were resolved to respond to the challenge.

For those who do not know Nigeria well, we would report that in size it is four times larger than the United Kingdom and that one African in six is a Nigerian. Broadly speaking, the Country is populated by Christians in the South, which is the more heavily populated area, and by Muslims in the North. At the time of our visit, Fives was only played in the North and Central areas of Nigeria. The time of our visit was carefully chosen to be in the relatively cool season with no chance of rain. The weather was, in fact, marvellous, being around 70C and pleasant and sunny - perhaps an ideal place for three weeks at Christmas and the New Year.

We therefore arrived at Kano Airport in the early hours of one Sunday morning in December, wondering exactly what we had embarked upon. Of course, we could not be met initially since there is a curfew in the town and traffic may not move before 7 a.m.! However, we survived for two hours and were then met by the Kano State Fives Association, who took us to our hotel.

The beginning - A visit to Kano

We were basically to spend the first three days in Kano settling in and playing two representative matches on the courts. Kano is a bustling town and the situation of the Fives courts are similar to those other venues which we were to visit. Very simply, the courts are available to the general public, accessible to all citizens and available for play between dawn and dusk. The courts are made of concrete, in good condition and, like all courts in Nigeria, are used constantly throughout the day by players of all ages, shapes and sizes. The first thing one learns about Nigerian Fives is that it is played by very many people, who are full of enthusiasm and who just get on with playing a friendly game with four or more people, with a tennis ball and without any fuss. As in most centres, we were denied any opportunity to practice, for the very simple reason that the courts were always in use and that our formal activities always left us no time whatsoever for appearing at the courts before the appointed time of the Opening Ceremony! A Fives match in Nigeria consists of an Opening Ceremony which lasts the best part of an hour, the match, which lasts less than an hour, and a Closing Ceremony, which then leads up to Final prayers. As sunset cannot be put back there is little flexibility in timing.


There were, however, two other shocks awaiting us. The first was that although the courts look reasonably standard from a cursory glance, the definition of a Nigerian Fives court we considered to be "three walls and a poetic licence". The pep, ledges and other impedimentia were certainly different and varied from one centre to another, In general, our experience enabled us to cope with this to a degree, but it is not made easy when you are playing against totally natural sportsmen who are able to practice on the court at least once every day of the year. The other shock was simply how the game was played in Nigeria. All sets of courts have a substantial run back and then a purposely constructed viewing gallery. For a major match, such that we were playing, in most cases the gallery would be full and because the game was played on perhaps the middle of three courts, then there could be up to 800 spectators, and if you face the crowd you can see very little except a sea of black faces. This was not all; the matches are televised, local officials, dignitaries and Governors are invited, and the officials are of great importance, whereas the players are merely gladiators. The most important person who, in fact, runs the match is called the Umpire. He has a microphone in one hand and would be well advised to have an abacus in the other. Unfortunately he does not, which means that he gets very excited, comments on the match and forgets the score, if, indeed, he ever knew it. This presents problems and these problems are magnified by another official using the microphone to obtain the comments of the visiting United Kingdom players on various controversial decisions between points and games. If this were done at Wimbledon the viewing ratings would soar! Amidst this, we were required to play the official matches with a hard ball and with a tennis ball.

The Players

Nigerian Fives players fellow none of the basic principles of European players. They are totally natural, do not always move their feet, play the ball off the wrong foot without thinking, and attempt to play the match rather like volleyball. They are immensely talented and it would be fair to say that not one match that we played with a hard ball was easy. It would also be true to say that we were substantially less easy with a tennis ball since we only achieved a maximum of three points per game against any pair other than our notable success when we narrowly beat a pair of eleven year olds 14;11. They normally play with a tennis ball every day of the year and there are simply hundreds and thousands of players. A tennis ball behaves very differently in the warmth and heat of Nigeria on a court with no roofs to that in England, and in a further report we would mention that return games with a tennis ball back in England produced a very different set of results. Returning to our Kano venue, we successfully defeated the Kano State Team in two close games and it was a novel experience for Richard to be able to take the microphone and address a crowd of just under a thousand stating quite definitely that this was an experience in Fives which was totally unique to both of us. As at all venues, we were able to present a silver plate from ourselves to the hosting officials as a gesture of thanks for their hospitality.

Formal Dinner

Our final night in Kano was recognised by a formal dinner, which seemed to be a major event in the town. There were well over one hundred people present, although very few of them were players, and the gathering was largely of officials and friends. We were surrounded by video cameras, which were becoming common place, and it was only half way through the meal that we were advised that at last we both had a speaking part, and that our speeches were likely to go out live after the news on National State Television. This can be a little disquieting, but nevertheless we both hastily rehearsed the carefully worded instructions, which had been supplied to us well in advance by the Foreign Office, for formal speeches, and, aided by a couple of beers, we both think we got through without a diplomatic incident.


After Kano our tour took us to Katsina, which is the most northerly town where Fives is played in Nigeria, and where you are situated but twenty miles from the edge of the Sahara Desert. Our first game was at a private farm house outside the City, and we were required to play the local Katsina champions. The match was very close, and after losing the first game we levelled a contentious second game at one-all. We were dissatisfied with the current referee, and asked for him to be changed, and we contend that this was a very contributing factor to losing the third game and the match. It is very difficult when, as admitted openly later, the referee is biased, and you finish up with three or four penalty points against you in a deciding game with no right to appeal to a tournament organiser. Having said that, we discovered that the pair were the National Nigerian champions, and that their standard of play was, indeed, high. The next day we were to repeat games against the Katsina State teams, but this time the venue was the Governors Palace. This was a whole afternoon to remember, and full of traditional Nigerian Ceremony. Amongst the tranquil green lawns and trees of the Palace, the Ceremony opened with the Katsina State Police Band playing the Nigerian National Anthem, followed by speeches from almost everybody, other, of course, than ourselves as mere players. There was no problem in following the speeches, because we had already been given a typed copy well in advance. The afternoon's Fives commenced with a display of games with a tennis ball, of which we were not considered sufficiently competent to take part and this was followed by a veterans match which was allocated specifically five minutes. We were then told again that we would play the State champions, the best of three games, and having lost the first game closely 12-9 from a 5-0 down position, we were then advised that there was insufficient time to continue and other games must be played.

The Closing Ceremony, again with us not enjoying a speaking part, was, indeed, exciting, since the Governor of the State, on the evidence of one hard ball game, was convinced that his pair would return to England in March and win the British championship. We therefore accepted the challenge, on behalf of the Eton Fives Association. There was, however, a greater lasting benefit to the game, in that the State Governor decided, simply on the spot, to build two further courts in the town to host the State championships later on in the year. Such is the rapid development of Fives in Nigeria.

The following day, we played some soft ball games on the court in the town square, where, against the National champions, we achieved only one point in two games! We also rechallenged this pair with a conventional Fives ball, but this time we were beaten 3-0. It might be offered in defence that we were, at this stage, a little tired on the tour, and some help and support from a tour manager may well have improved our chances.

Our final lunch at Katsina was taken in the Governments' rest house, which provided our accommodation and meals whilst in this town, and which is normally used for visiting Heads of State. It seemed appropriate that we should ask the chef, being Christmas Eve, to cook the Christmas pudding which we had religiously brought out from the United Kingdom, and this ritual was achieved with a certain amount of confusion and difficulty.


We hastily left from Katsina to drive south to Kaduna, stopping for a courtesy call with the Emir of Zazzau and then an evening meeting with the Patron of the Fives Association of Nigeria, Alh Isa Kaita CBE. He was, indeed, a delightful elderly gentleman, full of wisdom, highly respected in Nigeria and one of their Representatives at the United Nations. He was warm, friendly and we very simply both loved this delightful gentleman.

We returned to Kaduna and Christmas Eve in a predominantly Muslim state is somewhat uneventful. Indeed, we missed the highlight of the evening's television, being the tape of our losing match in Katsina which had been flown swiftly to the studios and put out for National viewing! Christmas Day saw a welcome four day holiday at Yankari Game Reserve, where we were free from Fives, but managed to play tennis, relax, swim in the hot springs, and invent our own competitive games. We returned to Kaduna with a visit to Lagos scheduled by private jet, but unfortunately we had to turn back half way due to the Harmatten winds and the premaure closure of Lagos Airport, presumably due to the winds- but not necessarily!

New Year's Eve saw the programme move to the Fives courts in Kaduna, with the hospitality provided by the local Club. We were successful in beating the top Kaduna Club pair in two straight games which again were fiercely competitive and, as with previous encounters, achieved very little success with the tennis ball.


The mornlng of the 2nd January saw the departure to Sokoto which can claim to be the birthplace of the game in Northern Nigeria. It was the Sarduna of Sokoto who was responsible for the early development of the game in the Country and who claimed this very English game for his own, By this time we were beginning to get used to the general conditions in the Country and the variety of different courts on which we were expected to play. Again we defeated the top local pair without dropping a game and the evening was, indeed, the most memorable of the Tour. We were treated to an outdoor reception at the local Civil Service Club where embarrassingly we were Guests of Honour and to a never to be forgotten evening of local cutural dancing. Sokoto is a small Northern Nigerian town and the one which we found most charming and friendly. The next day we left from Sokoto for a day's Fives at Birnin Kebbi. This is the town, indeed really a large village, with the original Fives court, but now replaced by three concrete courts. Again the courts showed considerable variations and our match against the top local pair started with a crowd of a mere 200 and as the match developed and got more exciting swelled to nearly 1,000. We were eventually beaten in two straight games, but again feel that many circumstances may have been against us. However, having won, the Nigerians then put on a Closing Ceremony, which again was unforgettable and we were required to model our full ceremonial robes before a huge, cheering and partisan crowd. We were substantially more popular for having lost than if we had ever won!

That evening we returned to Sokoto and the next day the party departed to Kaduna. While in Sokoto we again visited the local University, the Polytechnic and had formal dinners with the Sokoto State Fives Association. The point that must be made about these towns is that they just do not have one set of Fives courts but several sets and even the Nigerian Association are not aware of all venues. Towards the end of our visit we found getting out of the car to look at another set of Fives courts a rather tiresome and boring activity. There were, in fact, other venues which were not sheduled but where we were particularly keen to stop and make an appearance. Zaria was one such town which we visited socially for friendly games on the way up to Sokoto and again on the way back. This court is basically twice the length of a normal British Fives court and this we can promise causes considerable problems.


Our last unscheduled visit was in the small town of Gusau, where a match simply developed out of nothing and such a was the enthusiasm of the local population that we were in danger of being pulled to pieces by the local crowd and only escaped when our tour car backed towards the court, our helpers pushed us in and we were driven off down the main street leaving the crowds awaiting a return visit. Nigeria certainly enjoys its Fives.

Return to Kaduna

We returned finally to Kaduna where we had a final match against the Katsina pair, which, indeed, we lost 3-0 but with all games very close thus had failed to beat them on this Tour. Our main problem, in all cases, was coping with the variations in the court, and the bounce of an Eton Fives ball in a different climate. The Nigerian pair are, indeed, of a high standard, but the shots that you would expect to be available in England just do not appear in this Country, and we were very certain that a return game in England with a different climate would, indeed, produce a very different match and with the results reversed. The last formal dinner at a Chinese restaurant was in the presence of the Patron of the Association and consisted of officials from all the States which had so kindly looked after us. It is synonymous with Nigerian Fives that nobody would consider inviting a mere player. Final speeches and presents were exchanged and we certainly felt that we had, after many years, re-established links with a Country who are keen to develop the game, both Nationally end Internationally. Indeed, during our visit to Sokoto the local District Commissioner sanctioned the building of thirty new courts in the town over the next twelve months.


This trip would not have been possible without the considerable support of many people. Firstly we should like to thank Adamu Yakubu, our Nigerian Tour Manager, who simply gave up three weeks of his life to look after us and although on occasions biased, did, nevertheless, make sure that all our points and protestations were clearly put when things got very difficult during certain matches. We are grateful to Peugeot for providing the Tour transport, and, indeed, our driver and bodyguard who rescued us on many an occasion when we needed help. There were, however, many others in the background: Sir Anthony Cadbury, who, declined the Company sponsorship, but then gave us every personal help and assistance for the Tour. The personal support of Dick Clarke of Cadbury Nigeria for his general interest and enthusiasm and to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, both in England and Nigeria, who clearly demonstrated that two lonely British sportsmen were worth looking after.

In particular our thanks go to David Broad of the Foreign Office for paving the ground for our arrival, giving us a welcoming dinner and searching for us religiously when our aircraft went missing between Kaduna and Lagos. We must also thank the Nigerian Fives Association for their hard work and for providing us with excellent and varied accommodation at the various Centres. To the Nigerian Police Force for courteously not arresting us on New Year's Eve, and to the Central Hotel in Kano for the provision of superb facilities and room service that we felt could hardly be bettered the World over. In three and a half weeks we travelled 5,000 miles by road and hopefully redeveloped the game in Africa and at the same time provided ourselves with an experience in the sport which will long remain in our memory.


The following article appeared in the Birmingham Post in December 1988

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