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Shaking hands with a despot

When Michael Atherton met Robert Mugabe

Martin Williamson

June 28, 2008

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A moment an England captain would rather forget at Harare Sports Club in December 1996 © The Cricketer

There are some sporting images that are looked back on with a mixture of shame and disgust. The sight of the England football team giving Heil Hitler salutes before an international in Berlin in May 1938 has haunted generations, coming as it did less than 19 months before the outbreak of World War Two. Another in that category is of Michael Atherton, England's captain, shaking hands with a grinning Robert Mugabe in Harare in December 1996.

At the time of England's first senior tour of Zimbabwe in 1996-97, Mugabe was still looked on as an ally of the west. His rather more dubious activities could be overlooked by politicians because of the country's strategic importance. After all, how bad could things be when Mugabe had been awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen two years earlier (he was stripped of it earlier this week).

It was not one of England's finest moments from the off. Fast bowler Alan Mullally, when asked what he was looking forward to in landlocked Zimbabwe, replied "surfing". The tour started with back-to-back defeats in Harare, although they were followed by three- and one-day wins over Matabeleland.

In the first ODI, England lost. The first Test, which was drawn after England fell one run short of victory with four wickets in hand, is best remembered for coach David Lloyd's outburst. "We flippin' murdered 'em," he said. "Hammered them. Bloody steamrollered them. They know it and we know it."

The sides headed back to Harare Sports Club for the Boxing Day Test. The HSC borders Mugabe's fortified official residence and only the bravest - or most foolish - stop in its vicinity as crack troops swarm round it. Mugabe was actually in Bulawayo for the inaugural Test, addressing a Zanu-PF convention, but did not visit the game.

Publically, Mugabe, who was and remains patron of the Zimbabwe board, had said cricket "civilises people and creates good gentlemen". Privately he was more of a tennis person. Nevertheless, he was not one to overlook such a PR opportunity on his own doorstep, and on the third day of the match he made an appearance. "This was the day that pistols, rifles, submachine guns, bodyguards and siren-blaring outriders stormed the pavilion," Henry Blofeld noted in the Daily Mirror. "He met the media and just before lunch we piled in to the committee room. He is a small man with an electric presence. He wore a dapper, black-and-white check blazer and was enjoying himself. His black-suited bodyguards with tell-tale bulges under their jackets were unsmiling, suspicious and sinister. 'The slightest step out of line and that's your lot' was written large on all their faces."

Blofeld was actually granted a short interview. "When Mugabe began to talk, a roar announced the dismissal of Nick Knight. The president was so pleased that I think he thought he was the bowler. Yes, he learned to love cricket in South Africa. He regards the game as a stabilising influence and it is spreading fast in the black community. No, he had never played himself. 'But I have held a bat a few times.' Then it was over. The bodyguards closed round him and we filed out of the pavilion, past soldiers in combat dress fingering submachine guns."

Mugabe then met the teams in front of the pavilion. There were only a handful of photographers present when Atherton shook hands with Zimbabwe's president.

Twelve years on, and in his Times column, Atherton admitted that the picture was one he found deeply embarrassing. "Partly, I think, because of my slightly deferential body language," he wrote. "For someone who has never been impressed by status, power or money, it's puzzling to see that I'm not quite bowing, but nearly. I could blame my back complaint, which flared badly in Harare on that tour, but I can remember clearly that I had been in hospital some days before and received four cortisone injections. Would there be anywhere in Harare now that could offer such treatment?

A moment a nation would prefer to forget: the England side give a Heil Hitler salute in front of 120,000 in Berlin in May 1938 © The Cricketer

"The embarrassment stems more from my complete ignorance at the time of the atrocities that Mugabe had already started to inflict on his people. The year of our tour was a relatively quiet one and the worst bloodshed had yet to take place, yet he had already slaughtered between 10,000 and 20,000 Matabeles in an operation called Gukurahundi (the rain that washes away the chaff)."

Although the Test ended in a damp draw, the tour finished with two humiliating defeats in one-dayers and it was with relief that the squad headed for New Zealand in January. However, what happened on the field was nothing compared with the controversy surrounding England visits - and those which didn't happen - in the years to come.

Atherton returned as a journalist in 2003 for the World Cup, the same tournament where the England side refused to play in Zimbabwe. Admitting that when playing he was ignorant about some of the political aspects of life under Mugabe, this time he took time out to look under the surface.

"Mile-long queues for petrol and grain were the most obvious signs of distress in Bulawayo, but there was also a quiet dignity in the way that people tried to retain some kind of normality in their lives. At the match I covered - Zimbabwe against Holland, it was - some spectators held up anti-Mugabe banners. One read 'Mugabe = Hitler'. As they were rounded up, I went to the back of the pavilion and watched as the police brutalised them before herding them into a van and off to God knows where."

As Zimbabwe descended into chaos and Mugabe went from being tolerated dictator into reviled despot, that picture started to be used more often. By the time Michael Vaughan led England there in 2004-05, the prospect of a photo opportunity with Mugabe was the thing many feared more than anything.

"We are fully aware that Robert Mugabe, or one of his senior ministers, may turn up," Vaughan admitted on the eve of the series. "But we made it clear before the tour, and it was confirmed by the chairman [of the ECB] that the team will not be put in a position where they have to shake the hand of any government official. If anything like this did arise, then I am sure that the tour would be looked at in a different light. It could possibly lead to the tour being called off but I hope to God that does not happen."

It didn't, and now the chances of an England captain being within a hundred miles of Mugabe are non-existent. But it goes to show that a picture is often worth much more than a thousand words.

  • Six years before they shook hands, Atherton had met Mugabe when in Zimbabwe with England A. On that occasion Mark Nicholas, the team's captain, now a TV commentator like Atherton, had gushed that meeting the president "was the greatest day of my life". Perhaps he was fortunate there are no photographic records of that moment.

    Opening Up by Michael Atherton (Hodder & Stoughton 2002)
    The Autobiography by Phil Tufnell (Collins Willow 1999)

    Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

  • Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo

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    Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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