September 18, 1999

Henry Olonga- a short biography

Full Name: Henry Khaaba Olonga

Born: 3 July 1976, Lusaka (Zambia)

Major teams: Zimbabwe (since 1994/95), Matabeleland (since 1993/94). Present club team: Queens Sports Club (Bulawayo)

Known as: Henry Olonga

Batting Style: Right Hand Bat

Bowling Style: Right Arm Fast

Occupation: Professional Cricketer

First-class debut: Matabeleland v Mashonaland, at Harare Sports Club, 4 March 1994 Test Debut: First Test v Pakistan, at Harare Sports Club, 1994/95 ODI Debut: 21 October 1995, v South Africa, at Harare Sports Club

Biography (updated September 1999)

Henry Olonga was the first black cricketer to play for Zimbabwe, and it is entirely appropriate that his debut should be the occasion of Zimbabwe's first Test victory, against Pakistan in 1994/95; it was also appropriate that he should play a major part in Zimbabwe's next two Test victories. It is also fitting that he should be such a fine role model for young cricketers of all races, one whose cheerfulness, humility and positive attitude win him friends wherever he goes.

Henry comes from an unusual background, being born in Zambia of a Kenyan father and Zimbabwean mother. Soon after his birth, the family returned to Kenya, and then to Bulawayo while Henry was still young, as his father sought quality education for his children. Henry has two sisters and two brothers, one of whom, Victor, is a prominent Zimbabwean rugby player.

Henry learnt all his cricket in Zimbabwe, starting off at the age of about eight at the Rhodes Estate Preparatory School, known commonly as Reps. He progressed quickly enough to be selected for the Matabeleland team in the national primary schools cricket week. His best performance there was 7/33 against the Districts team, and he was selected for the Partridges, the national primary schools team. He had, by and large, taught himself to bowl, by watching others and figuring out the action for himself; while he was most successful, this perhaps accounted for the slight irregularity in his action which was to cause him trouble later on in his career.

Henry then went to Plumtree, where the headmaster Mike Whiley and coach Roy Jones were the major influences on his career. His most outstanding performance on the cricket field was against the touring Brighton College team, when he played an innings of 103 and took 8/15. He finished his school career as head boy, and also with a reputation as an accomplished singer and actor. His portrayal of Charlie Davenport in Annie, Get Your Gun led to his being nominated as one of the finalists in the search for Zimbabwe's best high schools actor. For a while he considered pursuing this as a career, but has now decided that, for the time being, his career lies in cricket. However, he admits that he would be very tempted were a career in music to open up before him, preferably so that he could combine it with cricket. He is also a good artist, and paints as a hobby. Cricket was not his only sport: he was a leading athlete and rugby player as well, but these have now been put aside for cricket.

In 1992, Henry became a committed Christian at a youth camp at Marondera, and he names this as the most important experience of his life; he considers himself to be a Christian first and foremost and a cricketer second. His whole life is based around his faith in Christ, and he has found strength in Christ despite all the setbacks and disappointments of his career. He believes that ultimately God uses people to accomplish His Kingdom purposes, and that he has been placed in the cricket arena by God, who has called him as a Christian to be an ambassador of reconciliation between men and God. He has the same calling regardless of whether he does well on the field of play or not, but his faith is such that, after a rather disappointing series against England, he could smile calmly and say, "I'll have my day." Coming off the field after playing his part in Zimbabwe's victory over India two years later, he jubilantly called out to the writer, "I told you I would have my day!" He does his best and is happy to leave the results to God.

He made his first-class debut at the age of 17 in the Logan Cup for Matabeleland against Mashonaland, taking five wickets. He had mixed fortunes the following season, and it came as a general surprise when he was chosen for the Test team to play Pakistan. There were inevitably accusations of 'window-dressing' levelled at the selectors, but in fact Henry's main advocate had been the national coach John Hampshire, who was impressed by his potential and raw pace. It was not generally known at the time that Henry might even have played Test cricket earlier that season, against the Sri Lankans. He was drafted into the injury-hit Zimbabwe squad for the Bulawayo Test, after David Brain had broken down in the First Test and Eddo Brandes was also injured. But it was discovered that he was ineligible to play due to the fact that his citizenship was Kenyan rather than Zimbabwean, as his father still had ambitions for him to represent Kenya as an Olympic athlete. Since then Henry has discarded that option, and is now a full Zimbabwean citizen. This cleared the way for his selection against Pakistan, as the country's first black and youngest-ever player.

It was a very mixed debut for him. On the positive side, he took a wicket in his first over and was part of Zimbabwe's great victory. On the negative side, he was no-balled for throwing and had to leave the field with a side injury. There had been occasional questions asked about the legality of his quickest deliveries and, in a warm-up match against the Pakistanis at Harare South, Aamer Sohail, well known for his abrasive and antagonistic attitude on the field, virtually browbeat the umpire into no-balling him -- before getting out himself to Henry! He was no-balled once in the Test, but in many quarters this was made into a major incident. The problem has not recurred because Henry, after coaching from Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation clinic in Madras (now Chennai), has modified his action slightly to ensure that there is no longer any question about its legality.

With the availability of Bryan Strang, Henry did not play in the two remaining Tests against Pakistan, and since then, until the 1998/99 season, played on and off for the national side without being certain of his place, especially in one-day matches. At full pace he is rated as the fastest bowler in the country but still tends to be rather inaccurate, with a tendency to bowl more no-balls and wides than most. He was a member of the Zimbabwean World Cup team in 1995/96 but did not play a match; when selected for the final game he asked to stand down, humbly explaining that he was out of practice and did not feel able to give of his best. Even though this was a disastrous tour from the playing point of view, Henry still found opportunities in India and Sri Lanka, as he had when touring New Zealand, to share Christ with people there in the natural course of conversation.

Henry still tends to be injury-prone, and had to return home from the tour of Pakistan in 1996/97 with a groin injury. This had healed in time for the England tour but, despite playing in both Test matches and picking up useful wickets, he still tended to be expensive and rather inaccurate, and was overlooked for the one-day series. But Henry was confident in his future because he is confident in Christ; he believes he has been called to cricket as a career and, because of that, his day would come -- as indeed it did. Early in 1998, though, he did confess to a feeling of frustration that his career appeared to have stagnated and he still did not have a permanent place in the national team even when fit.

During the series against England, Henry injured his left hand in the field. He took little notice of it at the time, thinking it was a minor injury, but it grew worse, and during the winter he had to return from the Plascon Academy in South Africa without bowling a ball, for treatment. He found he had chipped a bone, which necessitated his hand being put in plaster, and he missed the entire New Zealand tour. He was not able to play again until November, when he reappeared in club cricket with the plaster still on his left hand.

He recovered in time for the tour to Sri Lanka and New Zealand but, with an abundance of pace bowlers selected for that tour, he played in only one warm-up match in each country. The slow pitches in Sri Lanka especially were hardly suitable for his bowling. On his return, he was overlooked for the matches against Pakistan, and then omitted from the Commonwealth Games team for September 1998.

He spent the off-season of 1998 training, mainly with Heath Streak. He began weight training in May, put on three kilograms of muscle and felt physically stronger than he had ever been. At the end of June he went with other players into a training camp, led by Malcolm Jarvis, which included fitness tests and an exercise programme. Since then he trained every second day with Streak, and has also studied carefully videos of his bowling. He modelled his action to a certain extent on Allan Donald, but worked out what was best for him personally and stuck to it. He has also worked on bowling consistency, and found measuring his run-up more accurately, with his boots rather than paces, has helped him to cut down on the number of no-balls he delivers. All was applied with a great deal of prayer.

As the 1998/99 season began, he was selected for three matches against the touring Plascon Academy team, without returning any notable figures. He was not called upon to bowl 'at the death' in the one-day matches, and felt he was not regarded as a one-day bowler at all. He did not feel confident about selection for the 1999 World Cup. He did feel confident in his ability to bowl at the tail in such situations, feeling his pace would be too much for them and that any inaccuracies would be less likely to suffer punishment.

Then came the historic Test match against India. Henry did not expect to play as he had pulled a groin muscle two weeks earlier and was suffering from a sore back. Chairman of selectors Andy Pycroft persuaded him to play, emphasising how he was needed to strengthen the attack, especially after Sachin Tendulkar's superb century in the one-day match in Bulawayo. Although uncertain that he could last more than two days, Henry agreed to take the risk, in the knowledge that if he did break down there was plenty of time to recover before the next Test series.

Henry was first of all to play a valuable role with the bat in this Test. He went in at the unaccustomed heights of number nine, as Adam Huckle and Pommie Mbangwa were also in the team, giving Zimbabwe a very weak tail of three genuine number eleven batsmen who had at that stage a combined Test batting average of 7. Zimbabwe collapsed to 181 for eight, and with only those three still to come a total of 200 looked unobtainable. But Henry uncharacteristically blocked to score just 5 runs in 52 minutes, while Huckle chanced his arm, and the pair added a valuable and unexpected 33 for the ninth wicket.

It was a good bouncy pitch, and Henry quickly had the Indian opener Sidhu caught at the wicket. He bowled well to take his first five-wicket haul in Tests, his policy being to force the batsmen on the back foot, and then pitch it up quicker and fuller, a strategy he also employed with success against Pakistan. Thanks to Henry's five wickets, India were restricted to a lead of only 59 runs, and Zimbabwe were still in the game.

After a good start to their second innings, the Zimbabwe middle order collapsed again. "How could we have thrown away such a good position?" asked Henry. But, before India went in needing only 235 to win, coach Dave Houghton told the team that they had a Test match to win, and they needed to pick their heads up and do it.

Henry and Heath Streak put all they had into their opening spells. Although Henry was feeling tired and troubled by his groin injury. He dismissed opener Nayan Mongia with a ball that jagged back sharply off the pitch; Mongia, playing what looked like a desperation shot, slashed a catch into the covers. He did not take another wicket, but his opening burst had opened the way, and Zimbabwe went on to win the match. Henry played tribute to a great team attitude.

Henry remained in the team for the Mini World Cup in Bangladesh, but conceded 53 runs in his eight overs against New Zealand, not a good economy rate in a close match won off the last ball by the opposition. But he did not bowl particularly badly; the problem was simply that the batsmen kept snicking his deliveries which travelled for four at his pace. However he was left out of the one-day team at Sharjah until the fourth match, the 'dead' game against India.

This was another match when Henry's bowling was the main factor in Zimbabwe's victory. India needed only 206 to win, but in a devastating opening spell he removed India's first four batsmen, including Tendulkar, caught in the gully fending off a fierce lifter. The Indian took his revenge in the final, though, singling out Henry for particular attention, and his six overs cost 50 runs.

He was not chosen for the one-day series in Pakistan, and was therefore fresh for the First Test at Peshawar. Zimbabwe fell 58 runs behind on first innings, but then Henry opened the second innings with such devastating pace that it changed the course of the match. Pakistan were reduced to 15 for four, with Henry having taken three of the wickets. He later returned to dismiss Saeed Anwar, and Pakistan were bowled out for 103. He had given Zimbabwe a grip on the match which they never relinquished, eventually winning by seven wickets. In the drawn Second Test he also took three wickets with the second new ball while only two runs were scored, keeping the Pakistan score within Zimbabwe's reach. His success in this series gave Henry great satisfaction, as he still remembered the problems he had on his debut against Pakistan.

Although playing in only one match in the triangular series against Bangladesh, Henry as a proven match-winner could scarcely be left out of the World Cup team. He did not play in the first match against Kenya but, with the pitch at Leicester showing potential for helping pace bowling, he was selected to play in the next match against India.

This was very close to being a disastrous match for him. Unable to find his rhythm or control the white ball, due he later admitted to his efforts to bowl line and length rather than concentrate on sheer pace, he bowled three embarrassing overs, trying both ends without success and bowling a string of wides and an unintentional beamer. He was removed from the attack, apparently permanently, and that looked like being the end of his World Cup experience.

However, with India apparently coasting to victory with nine more runs needed for victory, three wickets left and Robin Singh and Srinath batting very capably, captain Alistair Campbell made perhaps the most inspired decision of his career. Realising that his other bowlers would only get worked around for the winning runs, he turned to Henry as his only bowler with the potential to destroy. And Henry did the trick. First Robin Singh, trying to finish the match in style, hammered a catch straight at short extra cover. He then yorked Srinath and, with his next ball, had Venkatesh Prasad moving across his stumps to be adjudged lbw without any hesitation by umpire Peter Willey. Zimbabwe had won an incredible and historic victory, thanks to Henry's devastating final over, and this was to propel Zimbabwe into the Super Six section of the tournament.

After such success Henry kept his place for the rest of the competition, but lightning did not strike again. He was very expensive, conceding over six runs an over, although picking up useful wickets. His one-day place is still not secure until he can become more economical, although he has clearly proven himself to be a match-winner on occasions. But his Test place, given continued fitness, is assured. Henry himself feels that he did the necessary hard work, struggling through pain and loss of form, but says in the end it was "God who gave me the ability to have that success."

To suggestions that he might consider slowing down somewhat and concentrating on line and length, Henry replies that it does not work for him, as was evident against India at Leicester. He is basically a fast bowler who relies on rhythm, and a slowing down or a different grip makes no difference.

The best way to achieve this rhythm, he finds, is simply to bowl in a relaxed frame of mind. If he tries too hard or runs in too fast, his rhythm is missing, his bowling loses accuracy, and he feels he has shot his bolt after three overs. But, when he has his rhythm, he feels able to bowl to his capacity and potential at top pace for ten overs or more, and is also able to swing the ball naturally away from the bat.

Henry is fully aware of his responsibility as a role model to the young, as Zimbabwe's first black Test cricketer, and is careful that his lifestyle is consistently based on Christian principles. These occasionally come into conflict with the different lifestyles of some of his team-mates, but this is inevitable for anybody as committed as Henry. He is not in the least race-conscious and is happy to take others as they come. His influence, both as a cricketer and as a person, should increase in the years to come.

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