June 7, 2008

From riches to rags

Top Zimbabwean cricketers have resorted to black-market hustling to survive

Warning note: the Zimbabwean currency introduced by the reserve bank in January is valid for six months only and its value falls daily © AFP

It is mid-afternoon in brute heat. Tafadzwa Gumbo (not his real name) is one of several people dotted around a popular municipal park in central Harare. He frantically tries to make a call on his mobile. The nightmarish state of the network means the connection rate is about once a day. He could almost give up but he cannot.

Gumbo is one of Zimbabwe's "professional" cricketers. A bright prospect, he attended the national academy when it was still an institution of repute, and went on to represent Zimbabwe A. He is still a key player for his province in domestic first-class games.

In Zimbabwe the public still see cricket as a rich sport. Once provincial cricketers were well-remunerated and some even drove sponsored cars. Now Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) pays Gumbo around £6 a month (or Z$600m on the black market).

Only the 13 regular national-team players can now be said to be comfortable. For the 20 or so on the fringes, such as Gumbo, whom ZC expects to survive solely on cricket, it is hard to earn a living. After paying his rent - one of the lowest in a middle-income suburb - Gumbo has just enough to buy four pints of lager at current prices.

So what does he do to survive? "Hustling, of course," he says - street lingo for money-changing on the black market, buying and selling almost anything, and other, not always orthodox, ruses.

"Tell me, if I didn't do this, how would I survive?" he asks. "I have a billion dollars on me right now," and he empties the pockets of his provincial side's tracksuit trousers to reveal a bundle of Z$10m notes. "I've just made it today. My employers don't even pay me this in a month, yet it's peanuts."

Gumbo says players like him are used only for propaganda by the Zimbabwe board. "They only care about us guys when it's time for the Logan Cup and Faithwear (the provincial one-day competition), when they need players to fill the first-class sides so that ICC and everyone can see cricket is being played. We are there to make up numbers. After that they dump us. They don't care about the standard of cricket and our welfare. One of the selectors asked me why my form had dipped. I asked him back how he expected me to perform when I was always thinking of how to get the bus fare to commute to practice and even to buy food."

Players like Gumbo are "rewarded" by being given hotel stay and hotel food for a month or so during a reluctantly organised Logan Cup. They are not entitled to out-of-pocket allowances, while highly paid board managers fly business class, claim hefty allowances and enjoy top executive rooms on frequent trips. And now the board is considering accommodating first-class teams in school hostels to cut costs.

At least, this season a Zimbabwe side were invited to play in South Africa's second-tier provincial competition, where daily allowances in rand were welcome cash relief.

This kind of treatment has led to several young players leaving cricket. One former national Under-19 and senior provincial player, widely seen as a solution to Zimbabwe's left-arm pace problem, "retired" dejectedly at 21 after being suddenly ignored by a new set of out-of-touch selectors. He now deals in mobile-phone credit from his parents' house in Harare's high-density Highfield suburb. Another 22-year-old with one-day caps is now a currency dealer.

For those who still look to cricket the future hinges on the next few months and the outcome of Zimbabwe's disputed election. Gumbo says: "A lot of guys will retire if things don't improve. As for me, I am just waiting for the election outcome to see if there is a future."

Steven Price is a freelance journalist based in Harare. This article was first published in the June issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here