The ungentle-manly game

HARARE - It is supposed to be a “gentleman’s game”, but this sport has not known peace for nearly 15 years now.

For a sport long associated with President Robert Mugabe, the latest problems to rock Zimbabwe cricket are just a microcosm of the broader socio-economic issues confronting the country today and where everything is politicised.

“Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen,” the octogenarian leader, who learnt his cricket at Fort Hare University in South Africa, told a British journalist 20 years ago.

But due to a number of factors, including skewed selection policies and racial charges, cricket in Zimbabwe has long ceased to be a “gentleman’s game”.

Without a doubt, the ugly side of the bat and ball sport — marked by internecine fights — came at the turn of the new millennium when the ex-guerrilla leader’s power and popular support had begun to decline.

The unending tug-of-war began in 2002-03 when a group of white players alleged political interference and were greatly opposed to a quota system making it mandatory for at least four black players to be fielded in teams.

The cancer continued to grow unnoticed and sooner there was the infamous black armband in 2003 where Henry Olonga, the first black cricketer to play for Zimbabwe, protested together with teammate Andy Flower. The two argued that they were “mourning the death of democracy in the country.”

Zimbabwe then witnessed the mother of all crises in 2004 when 14 white players walked out on the team following the sacking of the then captain Heath Streak, who had approached the board with a number of grievances laid down by the team.

The move also resulted in a depleted national team captained by the first black captain and the youngest to do so in Test cricket, Tatenda Taibu, before the country decided to go on a six-year voluntary withdrawal from Test cricket.

The inexperienced team, made up of young black players from the Under-19 side, suffered humiliation after humiliation, drawing widespread criticism and even ridicule from all quarters.

Taibu himself would soon fall foul with authorities and, in 2006, the diminutive captain quit the team after a boardroom dispute over non-payment of dues.

The Highfield-born cricketer’s teammates also threatened to quit after signing a petition demanding the resignation of the entire ZC board.

By January 2006, 37 Zimbabwean cricketers had failed to receive any offer of renegotiation talks from ZC after their contracts with the board had expired.

The players, represented by Harare lawyer Clive Field, demanded the removal of Peter Chingoka’s administration then, if there were to return to the international stage.

What followed was a nasty war of words between the board and the players’ advisors, who included among others, ex-board member and selectors head Macsood Ebrahim, former Rhodesia spin bowler and ex-selector Richie Kaschula as well as former executive Qhubekani Nkala.

Nkala, the assertive Falcon College-educated and eloquently-spoken brother of all-rounder Mluleki, had been earmarked to take over as ZC managing director in the post Chingoka regime era.

The dispute led the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) to take over the offices of ZC.

The apparent takeover resulted in the firing of all whites and Asians among the board directors, because of “their racial connotations and saving their own agendas and not government policy” according to Gibson Mashingaidze, a retired army brigadier and chairperson of the sports regulator then.

The furious disputes in Zimbabwean cricket have not always been black versus white. NO. Sometime in 2006, sports enthusiast and businessman Temba Mliswa led a front against Chingoka’s administration then in a fight which had the backing of provincial associations heads.

Another front also emerged, with development stalwart Givemore Makoni leading a powerful grouping which included individuals with a strong cricket background such as Kaschula and outspoken former Rhodesia cricketer Ray Gripper, father of ex-Zimbabwe Test batsman Trevor Gripper.

That group was powerful in the sense that it included cricket brains against administrators whose cricket background was scratchy and undocumented.

How they lost the battle, with victory looking certain, remains a mystery to this day, but some members of that group soon found themselves with lucrative posts in the system, signalling the end of the struggle.

Later on, the team slowly gained momentum as a collective unit three years later, sensationally beating Australia in a World Twenty20 match in South Africa.

The dust seemed to have settled, and the team ended its six years of self-imposed exile, making the much awaited return to the Test arena in 2011.

In a historical match at Harare Sports Club in August 2011, Zimbabwe won the comeback Test against Bangladesh before following up with a 3-2 series win in the ODIs.

All this, plus Test series at home against New Zealand and Pakistan, pointed to greater things to come but the reciprocal tour of New Zealand in January 2012 brought about the reality that the team still had miles of work to do after suffering a series defeat in all three formats of the game, Test, the One Day Internationals and the Twenty20s.

Suddenly, there has been a new wave of infighting in the sport when the team is poised to play a record number of Test series this year.

The recent dispute between Education and Sports minister David Coltart and Zimbabwe Cricket convener of selectors, Makoni has the potential to overshadow the team’s preparations for the tour of West Indies, according to the outgoing coach Alan Butcher.

The feud comes after the SRC issued a directive early this month stipulating that only people who have represented the country at national level, in any sporting disciplines, would be considered for a position on the panel of selectors.

Makoni  and his sympathisers claims the minister’s directive is a ploy to suppress black representation on top positions in the game, arguing that such a move would only help whites since very few blacks had the privilege of playing international cricket in the past.

With the racial debate raging on, this has prompted long-serving chairperson Chingoka to call for an all-stakeholders’ conference to cool tempers and deal with the ugly charges provoked by Coltart’s policy moves or recommendations.

While the anticipated conference will be held after the national side returns from an upcoming West Indies tour, the chairman’s intervention has been met with cheer since racism is an institutional problem in Zimbabwean cricket.

Apart from recent disclosures that black and white players used different buses on tour, while at last year’s Under-19 World Cup in Australia, it was alleged that black bowlers bowled bouncers in an intention to hurt their white teammates in the nets while counter allegations by blacks was that white fielders deliberately let runs flow in the field.

Last year, a major feud between convener of selectors Makoni and Cricket Committee chairperson Alistair Campbell erupted after the latter allegedly attempted to block Vusi Sibanda’s inclusion in a New Zealand tour, which seemed to fan a racial war in the game.

The convenor, in angry e-mails seen by the Daily News, accused Campbell of interference and unwarranted meddling. And in an interview with the same paper last week, current ZC managing director Wilfred Mukondiwa called on the cricket community to mend relations and foster racial harmony in the game.

“One of the major goals of ZC is to offer equal opportunities to all in cricket and spread the game. The suitability of any activity in a civilised nation is dependent on the involvement of the indigenous majority. This has been achieved in Zimbabwean cricket.

 “It must be noted here that ZC shares the national interest and desire to see an improvement in the performance of our national teams. Our stance on improving and developing the game is that policies should be long term and sustainable. There are now over 100 young men, black and white, who can be classified as professional full-time cricketers, an increase by almost 80 percent.” — Weekend Post

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