'Red Lions' tour draws to a close
Cuckfield Cricket Club, at first glance, seems an unlikely setting for a gathering of boisterous Southern Africans with two things on their mind: beer and cricket. The cricket ground lies a short walk down a quiet country road from the village of Cuckfield, and is set among the rolling green hills and farmland of East Sussex, with the backdrop of a majestic country manor. It was here that the Zimbabwe rebel players' "Red Lions" tour of England drew to a close on Friday, at the Tony Oates Memorial Cup tournament, and most of the players flew back to Zimbabwe on Sunday.
The rebel players had an extremely stressful three months running up to their tour of England; Heath Streak's criticism of team selection and certain selectors in April led to the sacking (twice) of 15 players and an ongoing legal dispute with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, which has now gone into arbitration. The players organised the tour to act as a break from their traumatic lives back in Zimbabwe, but despite the relaxed, jovial atmosphere at Cuckfield, it was obvious that many of them saw this as the last time they would meet on a cricket field.
Cricket has been played at Cuckfield since 1891, and it seems little about the place has changed since then. The surroundings create a serene atmosphere, which was immediately shattered upon my entry to the ground, with the announcer shouting "Ross, chum, that is my child! Beware!," over the PA to a batsman who had just carted a six dangerously close to the group of wives and children near the pavilion.
Jason Oates, who organises the event every year, said on the club's website that: "The whole ethos behind the day is to get as many people down to the club as possible and enjoy a day of cricket, laughter and of course a few beers. I would like to keep the cricket to a decent standard and hopefully this year, with no first-class cricket on that week, we will get a few of the legends to come down and show us how it's done."
Obviously looking to maintain the "decent standard", Travis Friend, one of the rebel cricketers taking part, joked before the first game: "It's no more Mr. Shamwari (friend) for you guys." The action on the field was non-stop, with games limited to 15 overs a side, and the teams were a mixture of professionals and amateurs. Barney Rogers, who had just broken into the Zimbabwe national side before the dispute between the players and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union started, smashed the bowlers to all parts of the ground before falling to the catch of the day, from Wayne Campbell - a player with no cricket credentials whatsoever.
Campbell's non-existent reputation was exposed by a man with "Has-beens, with a great future behind us" emblazoned across the front of his Red Lions tour shirt. Excitedly describing Campbell's catch to a few of his friends who were, unsurprisingly, in the bar ordering some Castles (Zimbabwe's most popular beer) when the action happened, he gasped: "Barney hit it and Wayne was sprinting round at cow corner. He didn't have a chance, but he dove to his left and caught it in two fingers, just like that. He doesn't even play cricket! He only plays once a year at these games."
Stuart Carlisle, who has been captaining the Red Lions side, explained that the memorial cup was not part of their itinerary, but they were more than happy to come down to help out, and have some fun. "Tony Oates was a farmer who was killed in Zimbabwe a couple of years ago, and every year his son, Jason, organises a memorial match here at Cuckfield," he said. "The Red Lions aren't actually involved with the organisation at all, but we're pleased to take part."
Eight rebel players took part in the four-team tournament, with Carlisle, Gary Brent, Richard Sims and Neil Ferreira playing alongside a team of Zimbabwean expats and ex-professionals in the Zimbabwe A side, Rogers playing for Old Whits, and Friend, Craig Wishart and Trevor Gripper representing the Red Lions in the Zimbabwe B team. Brian Murphy, who captained the Zimbabwe national side for a short time in 2001-02, also played for Zimbabwe B. The atmosphere on the day certainly embodied the "fun and frivolity" which was the Red Lions mantra at the start of their tour, and the other two teams - Cuckfield and Old Whits - were made up of friends, family and Cuckfield's resident cricketers.
"We came over here for stress relief, and to get some of the young guys playing again," added Carlisle. "It was a three-week tour, and we've played five games. We tied two, won two, and lost one. They've all been controlled games, though, more for the crowds really. Hopefully we've provided some entertainment.
"It's been very enjoyable. We've also been raising money for charity. That's been successful and we've raised some money for the pensioners in Zimbabwe. We leave on Sunday. Some of the guys are going home, some have had offers from sides in Australia and New Zealand."
At the end of July, the rebel cricketers accepted the ICC's proposal for their dispute with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union to be taken to arbitration. A three-man tribunal has been set up, and will now attempt to resolve the standoff between the two parties that began in April, and ended with nearly all of Zimbabwe's main players banned from representing the country.
"Basically we're in arbitration now, until October 5," explained Carlisle. "That's when the deadline is, but things are moving forward now, and we're hoping for a result. It's going to happen."
Zimbabweans, both white and black, have been scattered far and wide because of the severe problems at home, and the rebel cricketers are only the latest group to feel the wrath of the government. Before them, the white farmers and journalists came into the firing line. Ahead of the Red Lions' arrival in England, Paul Strang, who played against the rebels for a Zimbabwe World XI in the first match in Wimbledon, lamented the breakdown of the structure of the first-class game in Zimbabwe, which mirrored the collapse of normal society in the country.
"In domestic cricket, you know, we'd have a beer after the game, and just talk about the game and about cricket in Zimbabwe," he said. "You'd have 20 guys in there, just to have a drink and a chat after the game. But now so many players are leaving, it's not really happening so much anymore." Perhaps not in Zimbabwe, but in places just like Cuckfield, communities of exiled Zimbos have gathered together, and still find time to talk about a game that was once their nation's pride, over a cold beer at sunset.