Queens Sports Club has surpassed its former glories
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The name "Bulawayo" means "place of slaughter", which it was when the warlike Matabele ruled there in the 19th century. They were an offshoot of the Zulus, from South Africa, but were in turn subjugated by the white settlers in 1893, and massacred by Robert Mugabe's notorious Fifth Brigade 90 years later.
Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe's comrade and rival in the fight for black majority rule (as distinct from freedom, which still has not been won), was a Matabele. But they are very much the secondary tribal grouping in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe's Shona rule with an iron hand. To all appearances the Matabele, although strongly anti-government, have shed their warlike past and are friendly and easygoing, but with a reputation for harder work and greater efficiency than the Shona. Certainly Bulawayo is better maintained than Harare, the capital, where so many roads are riddled with potholes, to give just one example.
Bulawayo considers itself to be Zimbabwe's neglected city, and the inhabitants put it down to Shona prejudice. It is in the south-western, dryer area of the country, at a lower altitude than Harare and with more extreme temperatures. Several years back there were cries for help from a supposedly dying city, critically short of water after years of drought - although Dickie Bird, when he officiated in Bulawayo's inaugural Test in 1992, did his bit by bringing a brief spell of heavy rain.
There were calls for a pipeline from the Zambezi River, about 250 miles away, to bring water to this dying city. But there are periodic climatic changes in the country, and the last few years have brought better rains to this city - as the Bangladeshi tourists earlier this year can testify. But there will doubtless be more years of drought to come, and Bulawayo's future will again be imperilled.
A hundred years ago, Bulawayo was actually larger than and growing faster than
Salisbury, as Harare was then known. But about 50 years ago Salisbury surged ahead, as capital of the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Since independence Harare has burgeoned like an untidy weed, and the city centre is now noisy, messy and over-crowded. Bulawayo was better-planned than the capital, with wider streets and more "green" areas, and generally exudes a friendlier and more relaxed lifestyle.
Vikram Solanki hits out at Queens Sports Club
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There are similarities in Matabeleland cricket, too. During the first half
of the 20th century Matabeleland were more often than not stronger on
the field than Mashonaland, and provided most of the country's top players.
But as time went on there was a drift towards the capital, joined by the
famous Colin Bland, and cricket in the Bulawayo region has struggled.
In recent years, though, Matabeleland cricket has fought back. They take a great pride in their provincial team, especially in their recent national hero Heath Streak, and there is widespread fury at the scurvy way he has been treated. They resent efforts by the national selectors to pad the team with Harare players, and they promote matches much more effectively. Bulawayo nowadays has perhaps less than a third of the population of Harare, but crowds are not much smaller at international matches, and number several hundred for the domestic Logan Cup matches - the same fixtures at Harare Sports Club are played out in front of empty stands.
Township development is progressing well and, with such a superior attitude,
Matabeleland may again become - and deserves to become - the strongest force in Zimbabwe's cricket. Finance is a restrictive factor, though, and the local
administration is dependent on funds from Zimbabwe Cricket - which, of course, is based in Harare. Recently the Matabeleland Board gave the dictatorial Ozias Bvute a rough time when he tried to assert control at the provincial annual general meeting, and the relationship remains tense. But at least Bulawayo is given its fair share of international matches, and in the original England itinerary they were down to host three one-day internationals against Harare's two, as compensation for missing out on the Australian tourists last June.
Queens Sports Club was not used by the national team for more than ten years before it was revived to stage Test cricket in 1994, because of the inadequate facilities at Bulawayo Athletic Club, the other leading local ground. It looked a sorry sight, almost derelict, when it hosted Tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but thanks to the efforts of the keen local administrators, the ground soon regained and surpassed its former glories.
It lies just to the north of the city centre, and thanks to the broad streets vehicular access to the ground is delightfully uncomplicated - and there is plenty of room for parking on the nearby roads, in marked contrast to Harare. The northern and western sides of the ground, which boasts a larger and better scoreboard than the ones in Harare, is mainly grass terracing held together with brickwork, providing easy seating for spectators.
The eastern side of the ground consists of a small embankment between the
ground and the main road to the airport. Because of this, the northern end
of the ground is often called the Airport End, even though the airport is
about 20 miles away. Since the suburb adjoining the ground to the north is called North End, one local journalist maintains that it should really be called the North End End.
The most attractive feature of the eastern side of the ground is that it is
almost all in the shade of a long line of wattle trees. The public can sit
on the embankment, or the stands under the trees in the shade, and watch the
cricket, cool on the hottest days.
Most of the spectators nowadays are black, and their chanting, singing and
dancing have taken the place of the beery barracking that was more common in
the days of Castle Corner. Their usual habitat is the big stand on the western side of the ground, which is usually the most densely populated area. This is the most noisy, colourful and enthusiastic part of the ground, and the West
Indian horn-blowing custom has also taken root here. Slightly less appealingly, some of the women copy the Indian habit of screaming for boundary hits. While the home side is supported, there is no harassment of visiting players, and all the noise and activity is invariably in the form of good-natured celebration of cricket. And mercifully there is less fooling around with Mexican Waves than there is in Harare.
For all that, watching cricket in Zimbabwe is basically a middle-class
occupation, and despite the low prices few from the townships are able or
willing to make the journey to town, in Harare or Bulawayo, to watch
international matches. The urban middle class, mostly anti-government, are
not yet suffering in the same way as the peasants, but they do find cricket
an enjoyable escape from the problems of everyday life. Three or four years ago most of the atmosphere at big matches was generated by large parties of schoolchildren who would be bussed in for the day, a major experience in their deprived lives. But the astronomical costs of hiring buses and the fuel shortages have put paid to all that. The township children are no longer able to come, and Zimbabwe cricket is the poorer for it.
And the horns still blew, despite rain at Bulawayo
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The horns still blew as the rain poured down at the end of the lunch interval during today's third one-dayer against England. Most of the spectators on the eastern side had fled, except for a few stoic individuals huddled under the trees, most without umbrellas. The others had packed into the covered stands, out of that rare Bulawayo phenomenon ... rain.
The vicissitudes of the game did not deter the partygoers, and they were as
exuberant as ever while Vikram Solanki and Ian Bell were tearing apart the
Zimbabwean seamers. It would be wrong to suggest that they did not know
what was going on; they simply did not consider it sufficient reason to
dampen their spirits. They continued to roar their support for every little
Zimbabwean success, and though registering disappointment at failures they
quickly put the culprits' crimes from their minds.
At the close the horns continued for a while, but the crowd faded away slowly. The rain had not returned, the Zimbabwean defeat had not devastated their day, and there was always tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow will be better ... but today was still an enjoyable day out for two or three thousand inhabitants of Zimbabwe's second city.