Monday, 2 February 2015

Liam Brickhill: Henry Olonga and Andy Flower make a stand

It was a defining image of the 2003 tournament: two players, one black, one white, risking their lives and careers by wearing black armbands to protest injustice

At 9.30am on February 10, 2003, politics and sport in Zimbabwe came crashing together. It was the morning of the first World Cup match Zimbabwe had ever hosted, against Namibia.

A historic occasion, though history has remembered it for reasons other than cricket. The actions of two men – Henry Olonga and Andy Flower – broke the false levy that had protected cricket in Zimbabwe from its wider context. Like Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, images of Flower and Olonga’s black-armband protest have come to define the 2003 World Cup for many Zimbabweans.

The pair wore their armbands in every World Cup game they played, starting with the match against Namibia. They also released a statement to explain their actions, saying: “In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe. In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation.”
Henry Olonga
Henry Olonga
 The potent symbolism expressed by them, one black cricketer and one white, immediately gripped the nation and elevated the emotional intensity of Zimbabwe’s World Cup campaign.
The black-armband duo was, in fact, a trio. Olonga and Flower met with David Coltart, a lawyer and one of the founding members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, as they planned their protest. Coltart, who would later become Zimbabwe’s Minister of Sport, was (and remains) a keen follower of Zimbabwean cricket. He helped the cricketers draft their statement, and came up with the idea of using black armbands to symbolise their protest.

February in Zimbabwe typically marks the tail-end of the rainy season, and though the rains had failed over much of the country in the preceding months, an armada of fluffy clouds rolled gently over Harare Sports Club as Zimbabwe motored past Namibia in rather less graceful fashion.

Inside the press box, events with ramifications far beyond the tree-lined rim of Harare Sports Club were taking place. Despite the political turmoil that had gripped the country since the turn of the millennium, Flower and Olonga’s protest took the assembled sporting press very much by surprise, myself as much as anyone.

Probably more so, as I was a 19-year-old rookie journalist at my very first international cricket match, and a little too excited just to be there. I was writing for the Morning Star, a left-wing London rag. It was tanks rolling into Baghdad on their front page, and yours truly reporting from the World Cup on the back.

Flower and Olonga didn’t ruin Zimbabwe’s World Cup party; the circumstances in which the event took place meant that this would always be a time of sorrow, rather than celebration, for Zimbabwe

That morning, as I busied myself with at least trying to look like a real journalist, even if I wasn’t one just yet, the more grizzled hacks were absent-mindedly filling their cups of coffee, thumbing through the morning papers or glancing at the team lists of the Zimbabweans and somewhat anonymous Namibians.

When copies of Olonga and Flower’s statement were placed matter-of-factly in front of each journalist present, the mood in the press box immediately intensified. Coffee sputtered out of nostrils, phones began to ring, and fingers started tapping frantically at keyboards.

The months and weeks leading up to the tournament had been filled with lengthy political machinations and debate, both within Zimbabwe and related to the country’s cricket. There had been an election in 2002, the result of which was deemed “free and fair” by African observers but questioned by the international community.

Dikgang Moseneke and Sisi Khampepe, two South African high court judges, released a report on their observations of the elections, but it was swiftly buried and didn’t see the light of day for another 12 years.

The land invasions of white farms, which began in 2000, continued and had resulted in several deaths. The treason trial of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition MDC, started a week before the tournament. The minds of many Zimbabweans were, understandably, elsewhere, and it was hardly an ideal time to co-host an international sporting event.

All this combined to spook the ECB and the England cricket team, with plenty of to-ing and fro-ing over whether they would play Zimbabwe at the tournament, but precious little decisive action. Despite all the brouhaha, no one saw Flower and Olonga’s protest coming.

Indeed, before the World Cup, Flower had been asked what he thought the biggest surprise might be in the weeks to come and answered cheekily: “If England were to beat Zimbabwe.”

Heath Streak, Zimbabwe’s captain at the time, suggested that not even those closest to Flower knew what he was planning. “I don’t even think his brother knew,” said Streak. “We came out from the warm-up [before the Namibia game] and I remember seeing the manager and the coach and Henry and Andy sitting in the corner, and I realised there was a problem.”

“I never picked it up,” added Tatenda Taibu. “I played and everything. The other guys were chit-chatting, saying, ‘That’s quite brave.’ I was like, ‘What are they talking about?’ I didn’t even know. If they did tell everyone in the dressing room, I was not there.”

Zimbabwe’s next match was scheduled to be against England on the day before Valentine’s, but as it turned out, England never showed up.

After an alleged death threat from a group called the Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe (a clique no one had heard of before, and which has not been heard from since), it was decided by the ECB that concerns over player safety were significant enough for the match to be cancelled, albeit at the 11th hour.

In a politically chaotic tournament Australia – who had cancelled their tour of Zimbabwe in 2002 over the threat of danger after the elections – went against government advice, and supposed safety concerns, to play their group match against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, while New Zealand withdrew from their fixture against Kenya in Nairobi due to what a New Zealand Cricket statement called a “tangible terrorist threat” and “active terrorist organisations” in the city.

Media attention after Flower and Olonga’s protest escalated rapidly, the spotlight helping to keep the pair safe amid the repressive power structures in the country.

All the same, Jonathan Moyo, the Minister of Information, labelled Olonga an “Uncle Tom” with “a black skin and a white mask”, and he was immediately dropped from the playing XI. An attempt to drop Flower was thwarted only by the threat of a full-scale player boycott. Takashinga Cricket Club issued a scathing statement about their (former) player, Flower, and Ozias Bvute, an official in the Zimbabwe Cricket Union personally kicked Olonga off the team bus. Both players were slapped on the wrist by the ICC, which asked them not to repeat their protest.

The reaction of the general cricket-watching public was in stark contrast, with near universal support for the cricketers. At Zimbabwe’s next match, against India, a smattering of spectators turned up with black armbands of their own. When nothing happened to them, the trend quickly spread and in Bulawayo, where Zimbabwe played Australia, some even turned up with placards decrying the social and political crisis in the country. Emboldened, several of the players within the Zimbabwe camp considered joining Flower and Olonga in protest, and possibly even boycotting one of their matches outright in order to make a statement.

Not among their number was Guy Whittall, a rakishly charming, laid-back figure both on and off the field. Whittall had battled form and fitness issues to force his way back into Zimbabwe’s side for the World Cup. On the wrong side of 30, with a gammy knee, Whittall knew that he’d soon be retiring from sport to help run his family’s game ranch, and all he wanted was a quiet, dignified exit from the game.

“These guys came to me and started talking about not walking onto the field tomorrow,” remembers Whittall. “‘We’re going to wear our black armbands.’ I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. This will come with all sorts of threats. Let’s just get on and enjoy our last few games. Let’s finish this thing.’”

Zimbabwe did take the field that day. The Flower brothers shared their last significant stand in international cricket, driving, dabbing and sprinting their way to a partnership of 84 in 20 overs. Andy’s incandescent celebration upon reaching his fifty, tearing off his helmet and gesturing expressively up at the players on the balcony, showed just how pumped up he was.

Thanks to the four points Zimbabwe gained from England’s forfeit, Zimbabwe needed at least two points from their fixture against Pakistan to progress to the Super Six.

The 2003 World Cup provided the grand stage for the first battle in the war over the soul of cricket in Zimbabwe

The rain, absent for so much of the early season and now apparently making up for lost time, helped them achieve that, but Zimbabwe’s “victory lap” after their sodden qualification was more apologetic than triumphant, and their second foray into the Super Six in as many World Cups was not a happy one.

The second stage of the tournament was played entirely in South Africa, where Nathan Astle’s century bettered Heath Streak and Sean Ervine’s blitz against New Zealand, and Zimbabwe had no answer to a Kenyan side brimful of enthusiasm, capitulating for 133. That game marked the end of Olonga’s and Alistair Campbell’s international careers, while Flower played his final match against Sri Lanka in East London.

He was shotgunned by an umpiring decision on 38, given out lbw despite a massive inside edge, and Zimbabwe’s World Cup whimpered to a close with his departure, as the next six wickets fell for just 42 runs. It was a sad day for Zimbabwean cricket, and a melancholic end to the career of the best player ever to pick up a bat for them.

After the Sri Lanka match, a rumour began to circulate that agents from Zimbabwe’s feared Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) had arrived in the city looking for Olonga, and he was quickly taken to a safe house. Whether or not the rumour was true, his caution was apt. Things happen to people in the custody of the CIO. Security agents once turned up at my university in Grahamstown in South Africa, looking for a Zimbabwean student who had organised a march to protest the violence of the 2008 elections. Being in South Africa does not mean certain safety.

A couple of weeks later, death threats forced Olonga to leave for England. Flower had already secured a contract with Essex. Both were given honorary life membership of the MCC later that year. Whittall also retired after the World Cup, while Campbell and Brian Murphy also never played for Zimbabwe again.

On March 3, the day before Zimbabwe qualified for the Super Six, Coltart found that a rear tyre of his car had been sabotaged (some months earlier his car’s brake linings had been cut). On the morning of March 15, the day Zimbabwe’s World Cup campaign ended against Sri Lanka, Coltart noticed a vehicle with three men and what appeared to be a weapon outside his home as he left with his nine-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter.

The car followed him at speed before his security team caught up with them, when the mysterious car gave up the chase and left. Coltart went into hiding for two weeks.

The rebel crisis, a year later, was the apocalyptic event in Zimbabwean cricket, and 2004 marks Year Zero for the current team and the game as we know it in Zimbabwe. Yet, the 2003 World Cup provided the grand stage for the first battle in the war over the soul of cricket in Zimbabwe.

The world has turned through two World Cups since 2003. It was a long time ago – in cricketing terms, a full generation. It wasn’t until 2014 that the Khampepe Report on Zimbabwe’s 2002 election, which suggested that the election was neither free nor fair, was made public. The results of that election still ripple through Zimbabwean society today, and nor is Zimbabwean cricket free from the turmoil that has gripped it for more than a decade.

Politics and sport had been mixed into a sour broth in the years preceding the World Cup. Flower and Olonga didn’t ruin Zimbabwe’s World Cup party; the circumstances in which the event took place meant that this would always be a time of sorrow rather than celebration for Zimbabwe. But they were presented with a chance to change their sport, and perhaps even their country, for the better, and they took it.

Was it worth it? “We can’t all change the world, but if we all do little things along the way and make the most powerful decisions we can then I think we can bring about change,” Flower told the BBC in 2013. “Would I do it again? Given the same circumstances, without a doubt, yes.”

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town


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