Feature

'There has been no government interference' - Zimbabwe minister of sport

Kirsty Coventry wasn't sure why the ICC had taken a harsher line with Zimbabwe as compared to other Full Members

Zimbabwean fans put up banners in the stands  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Zimbabwean fans put up banners in the stands  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Just under two years ago, Twitter had increased its character limit from 140 to 280, opening up the potential for a little more verbosity and discursion. Zimbabwe's current minister of youth, sport, art and recreation, however, had little use for that in the moments after the ICC announced it was suspending the country from cricket participation for alleged government interference in cricket governance.
All Kirsty Coventry required was 52 characters - three of them taken up by indignant exclamation marks - to make her point. "There has been no Government Interference @ICC!!!" she tweeted.
In an exclusive interview with ESPNcricinfo, Coventry, a former swimmer with seven Olympic medals - no female swimmer has ever been more prolific in terms of individual medals - stood by that terse exclamation. Also the chair of the Athletes' Commission in the International Olympic Committee, Coventry drew a clear line between the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC), and the government, insisting that while the SRC may be a public body, its running was wholly independent from the government, whom it took no dictation from when it decided to dissolve the entire Zimbabwe Cricket board.
"There's a very clear line in terms of the ICC constitution when they reference government interference," she said. "There are some big differences between a public body and government. As minister I appoint the SRC board. Once they are appointed, they have to abide by their act. I cannot influence them. They are appointed to give me information and feedback. I am not supposed to interfere in the running of the SRC board. They are there to oversee the national associations in terms of governance.
"In terms of what happened with Zimbabwe Cricket, the SRC felt they were not abiding by their own constitution, and hence asked them to postpone their general assembly and the elections. The ZC board decided at the time not to listen to that and hence the SRC moved to suspend them because they were going against their own constitution. The SRC Act that we legally have in our country allows for it to oversee national associations to prevent bad governance and get our sports back to where they should be. As far as the ICC ruling goes, from my point of view there's a big difference between government interference and what actually happened. The difference is that I, as someone who is in government, was not involved in making the decision of the SRC board, and I did not issue any directive."
Coventry is still "very disappointed" by the ICC ruling, while acknowledging she knew the SRC's decision ran the risk of sanction from the ICC. She believes the decision was taken for the good of cricket in Zimbabwe, and wasn't sure why the ICC had taken a harsher line with Zimbabwe than they had with other Full Members where interference was suspected.
Government interference in some form or the other is hardly unique to Zimbabwe. In Pakistan, the prime minister is the patron-in-chief of the cricket board, and has the power to, for all practical purposes, appoint the PCB chairman. The SRC's defence specifically quoted what they believed qualified as similar yet more striking examples of government interference in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka's cricketing affairs, alluding to the Lodha reforms, as well as the BCCI's stance of not playing a bilateral series against Pakistan until they were cleared to do so by their government.
In 2015, the ICC probed Sri Lanka Cricket for potential government interference in the dissolution of its board, but in none of these cases did a suspension ensue.
Coventry hinted at a deeper sense of injustice when drawn upon those parallels. "I'd love to get an answer to [why we were treated differently]. But I don't want to assume anything. I believe that the ICC at the end of the day try to make decisions based off what is best for the sport. I can't really comment on anything to do with other countries and maybe the financial clout that they may or may not have."
There's little time, however, to nurture any grievance of that sort, and Coventry knows that best of all. This is, according to Grant Flower - and his view isn't by any means in the minority - it's the deepest crisis cricket in Zimbabwe has ever countenanced, "far worse" than the rebel boycott of 2004. The financial shortages are crippling enough to mean hosting bilateral series is out of the question. Zimbabwe announced their participation in the Bangladesh tri-series scheduled to take place in September was off, too. With apparently no money to pay players, let alone ground staff and the hundreds of other people ZC employs, there is little time to lose if Zimbabwe are to come to a deal with the ICC.
The Zimbabwe women's team was scheduled to take part in T20 qualifiers in August, with the men to follow suit in October and November. As things stand, they are both barred from doing so, with non-participation in the event, and the subsequent T20 World Cup, likely to be another torpefying blow to the cricket board's already beleaguered financial state. Coventry said discussions were ongoing as to how players - whom she called "the highest priority" could continue to get paid while the suspension hung over the board, and was hopeful of a swift resolution with the ICC.
"I'd like to think that people can come together and work together and figure out something. From my point of view the players are the most important right now and making sure that we keep to the schedule that they've been training for and working towards is very important.
"When the ICC decides to suspend a country, they send formal communications with timelines and expectations. I'm interested at looking at what that paperwork entails and for them to make a little more clear the reason they took their decisions. But at the end of the day, I do not want to see my players suffering with our women's and men's team both having crucial games coming up. Time is of the essence."
Whatever the next few months hold, the embattled cricket board's struggles appear to only just have begun. The next challenge will be to hold onto their players in the face of yet another exodus, with Solomon Mire already having announced his retirement and Sikander Raza and Kyle Jarvis having hinted at the possibility. Others are unlikely to be far away, particularly if the suspension isn't just the ICC "shaking the tree to give it a jolt", as Coventry put it.
For her, though, any contemplation of cricket dying out in Zimbabwe appears to be an unbearable thought.
"I hope not," Coventry says quietly. "I hope the ICC realises how big of a cricket nation we are. I grew up going and watching the Flowers and Henry Olonga and Heath Streak and even now, when we hosted the World Cup Qualifiers last year, cricket just brought people together. I would hope that the ICC wants to work with us and ensure everything gets back on track. Not just to take it back to where it used to be, but leapfrog it."
"We have to restructure our different sports and take hard decisions. This decision wasn't an easy one. I think they understood and knew what the repercussions could be. But sometimes we have to take two steps back to move forward. And I believe at the end of the day, the board that I've put in place are made up of very passionate, enthusiastic, and smart people who believe that Zimbabwe have talent.
"We've been losing a lot of our talent to other countries and we have to be able to figure out how to better support our athletes. We do that by creating the correct structures with the right people in place."
Coventry doesn't exactly want for sporting achievements in her career. But just as she's begun to dip her toe into the difficult world of Zimbabwean politics and sports administration, she finds herself fighting currents you don't get in an Olympic swimming pool. There may be no gold medal at the end of this, but righting the course of Zimbabwean cricket would still be an achievement to rank fairly high on one's CV. Even if you're Kirsty Coventry.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000