February 9, 2013

Zimbabwe cricket in familiar strife again

A decade since the "death of democracy" protest, the country's cricket struggles with issues of race, politics, and player alienation

Ten years ago, Henry Olonga and Andy Flower took the field in Zimbabwe's World Cup match against Namibia wearing makeshift black armbands, launching their famous protest against the "death of democracy". This weekend, in fact, will mark the tenth anniversary of their gesture. In that time, Zimbabwean cricket has been torn apart by the rebel saga and sunk to a pitiful nadir, before rising phoenix-like in 2011. Yet recent events prompt the question: how much has really changed? Some of the deep-seated issues at play in Zimbabwe and its cricket - race, politics, power - remain as potent as ever.

And in Zimbabwe, it never rains but it pours. In the last month, the drought gripping the south of the country was broken by torrential rain. Water that was meant to quench has instead killed more than 50 downstream in Mozambique. As for the country, so for the cricket. A Sports and Recreation Commission directive that national selectors will need to have played international cricket for Zimbabwe, ostensibly penned with the intention of helping the sport, has instead unleashed a torrent and battle lines have been drawn.

Further, Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis have spoken out about the absence of Heath Streak, fitness trainer Lorraine Chivandire, and - in particular - Grant Flower from the coaching party for the West Indies tour. Their actions may not be directly linked to the SRC directive row, on which the players have kept their views to themselves, but they spring from the same general malaise. Their words contradicted Zimbabwe Cricket's statement that the players had been consulted about the travelling coaching staff, and censure is sure to follow. There is trouble brewing. Like the hovering storm clouds over the countryside, however, the problem isn't black or white; it's grey.

The situation was similarly murky in Andy Flower and Olonga's day. Both are long gone, neither having set foot in the country since that World Cup, but their black armband duo was, in fact, a trio - a fact that often escapes attention - and a key figure in their protest remains in Zimbabwe.

David Coltart, Zimbabwe's minister of education, sport, recreation and culture, was a human-rights lawyer ten years ago and helped Flower and Olonga pen their statement. It was his idea that they wear black armbands as a powerful symbol to back their words.

Coltart still lives in Bulawayo. He appears well-meaning. In between posting pictures of himself having dinner with the likes of Bob Geldof and quoting from scripture, he shares a broad range of media about sports he clearly loves. He's a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and is by far the most accessible minister in the unity government, engaging with a spectrum of Zimbabweans online. That the SRC directive, of which he was a leading proponent, was issued with the best interests of sport in Zimbabwe in mind is probably true. What is also probably true, unfortunately, is that Coltart fatally misread the complex realities of racial politics and power in Zimbabwean cricket.

The directive was ill-judged and ill-timed. It was too easy to paint the whole thing as a personal attack on the convenor of selectors, Givemore Makoni, an attempt to scupper Stephen Mangongo's coaching plans, or worse, as plain racist.

Zimbabwe Cricket has rejected the SRC directive outright, and a mudslinging campaign remarkable for its unfettered puerility has ensued, with the beleaguered minister in the eye of the storm. "Can you ever imagine Zimbabwe Cricket adopting this attitude if it was a Zanu-PF minister involved?" Coltart has been led to ask. And therein lies the rub.

Makoni has done invaluable work for cricket in Zimbabwe over the years. He helped start Takashinga Cricket Club, for one thing, prompting an entirely necessary revolution of an elitist sport. Perhaps he and others in the cricket set-up aren't invested in political power. Perhaps the visibility of sport - and particularly Zimbabwean cricket - in the media means political machinations within the game are inevitable, no matter who is in charge. Nevertheless, a political machinery has been called into line behind them, and somewhere along the line this saga left the details of the implementation of a directive behind and entered the murky, dangerous waters of power and politics.

It is clear that political differences and mistrust remain within Zimbabwean cricket, and while the elephants battle, ants are crushed underfoot

Alan Butcher, who will leave his post as Zimbabwe's coach after the tour of the West Indies, has been one of the few diplomatic voices in the escalating row. "Obviously it is the most topical issue in local cricket right now but I sincerely hope that it won't affect our preparations. We will definitely talk to the players, but I'm not sure it will affect them because their job is just to play the game," Butcher said when the SRC spat first arose.

Later, and just a matter of weeks before Zimbabwe were set to depart for the West Indies, the situation had obviously deteriorated, and Butcher lamented the unfolding crisis on his Facebook page. "To all my cricket friends out there... teammates colleagues former opponents all over the world I'm sick at heart with whats going on in Zimbabwe cricket right now and hope you all know that i would never be party to selection according the colour of someones skin..... how could i look my kids in the eye if they thought i was capable of that!"

The current quarrel has served to heap several complex issues onto the plate of an administration that is already reeling after a year of severe financial strife and virtually no international competition on which to focus meagre resources. In August, Zimbabwe Cricket was evicted from its offices at Harare Sports Club for non-payment of rent. In January this year it had various properties attached by the deputy sheriff after losing a civil case to a former marketing manager.

And all this in an election year. Allegations, speculation and rumour are rife. It is clear that political differences and mistrust remain within Zimbabwean cricket, and while the elephants battle, ants are crushed underfoot. The players are expected, somehow, to buckle down and make the most of their first international tour in over a year despite the turmoil.

"Are we ever gonna play this game in this country without any drama, some things never change...smh [shaking my head]," said Chamu Chibhabha, a young allrounder re-called to the one-day side for the Caribbean trip, on his Twitter feed. As much as things change, they stay the same.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town