Zimbabwe: Sticky Wickets

Zimbabwean bowler Henry Olanga wore a black arm band to protest the death of democracy in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwean bowler Henry Olonga wore a black arm band to protest "the death of democracy in Zimbabwe" (Photo: AFP).

Cricket is known as the gentleman’s sport, a game in which restraint and etiquette prevail. But a decision by the International Cricket Council (ICC) to schedule some of its 2003 World Cup matches in Zimbabwe put cricket’s reputation for good manners to the test, as the contest became a proxy battleground for the antagonistic governments of Zimbabwe and Britain.

The schedule for the 2003 World Cup, including matches in Zimbabwe, was approved by the ICC in February 2001. But in 2001 and 2002, as social and political conditions in Zimbabwe deteriorated, many countries expressed concern about sending their cricketers to play there. The matter came to a head in late December 2002, when the British government put pressure on the England team to pull out of its match in Harare, fearing that its presence there would be seen as an endorsement of President Robert Mugabe’s regime.

The government’s move threw the British cricket authorities and the England team into an agony of indecision. Along with the sense that it might be legitimizing Mugabe (a confessed cricket fan and patron of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union) by its presence, the team feared for its own safety on Zimbabwean soil. But it also had its fans and the protocol of international contest rules to consider.

In Southern Africa, tempers were inflamed by the fact that nobody in England’s cricket community seemed to want to take responsibility for making an unpopular decision. This became clear when England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chief executive Tim Lamb claimed that “it is not our role to make subjective moral judgments,” and England team captain Nasser Hussain told a press conference that his team did not have time “to sit down, watch CNN and BBC World and come to the informed moral judgment which it is necessary to make about going to Zimbabwe.”

“The idea that politicians and governments alone can...make moral judgments on behalf of everyone, including sportsmen, is very wrong,” wrote Quentin Peel in Business Day (Jan. 6). “Whether they like it or not, sportsmen and women have a particular responsibility. When they represent their countries they become wittingly, if regrettably, icons of patriotism.”

When, after weeks of deliberation, the ECB announced on Jan. 14 that England’s match in Zimbabwe would go ahead, criticism in the African press was fierce. “It is obscene to suggest elaborate international fixtures should be played in our House of Hunger by a pack of pipsqueaks in white flannel when millions live in the shadow of state-sponsored terrorism,” wrote Paul Taylor in the Zimbabwe Independent (Jan. 24).

Writing in the Accra Mail on Jan. 22, Jonathan Temin agreed the ECB’s decision was “unfortunate” and argued that a boycott would have sent a strong message, since “in Southern Africa, sports boycotts and sanctions have been quite effective politically, as they were critical to the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa.”

But the ECB’s decision wasn’t the final word. In early February, the England team received an anonymous letter from a group calling itself the Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe. The e-mailed letter, which was also sent to the ICC and the ECB, informed the team that the group had prepared pipe bombs to deploy against it, along with 50 crates of rotten eggs coated with poisonous resin.

From South Africa, where it was slated to play its opening match against Holland, Hussain’s team appealed to the ICC to move its match with Zimbabwe to the South Africa site. On Feb. 7, ICC Appeals Commissioner Justice Albie Sachs denied the request, but despite the ruling England decided to withdraw from the match.

Sachs “will be judged ruthlessly by history for his politically correct ruling that ignored the suffering of millions of Zimbabweans so that the game could go on,” wrote Iden Wetherell in the Zimbabwe Independent (Feb. 14). A Feb. 10 leader in the Daily News concurred that Sachs’ decision was “disappointing,” but nevertheless found some consolation: “With the glare of the whole civilized world focused on Zimbabwe, this is a God-sent opportunity to stage all those demonstrations people had itched to stage but didn’t dare to for fear of police brutality.”

The paper’s prediction seemed to come true when, on Feb. 10, two members of the Zimbabwe team, Henry Olonga and Andrew Flower, arrived for their opening match against Namibia wearing black armbands as a symbol of mourning for “the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe.” In a public statement, Flower and Olonga announced, “We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed, and oppressed....Although we are just professional cricketers, we do have a conscience and feelings.”

“Andy Flower and Henry Olonga have shown there are some for whom principle and human decency count for something,” wrote Wetherell in the Zimbabwe Independent (Feb. 14). “They are a fine example to all Zimbabweans, especially the younger generation who need to know that cricket is not devoid of a social context.”

Tendai Madinah, writing in the Daily News (Feb. 11), called the cricketers’ statement “blistering,” saying that it offered a sharp contrast to the government-owned media’s position that “the absence of the rule of law and democracy [in Zimbabwe] is the work of the British government.”

On Feb. 15, the ICC ruled that England would forfeit its unplayed game, and that  Zimbabwe would receive 4 points for the match. But, wrote Robert Kirby in the Mail & Guardian (Feb. 17), “The debacle of the Zimbabwe affair has seen the credibility of the whole competition so battered as to render any result as lacking significance.”