Shut out by an unjust system, shut out by his own

HARARE - Bernard Pswarayi is never one to shy away from speaking his mind, often firing sharp-tongued broadsides as consistent as the swing bowling he was known for at the peak of his cricketing powers in the 90s.

Pswarayi’s strong views on cricket in Zimbabwe, to a large extent, are influenced by an unmovable conviction – to this day – that an unjust system prevented him from representing his country because he was not, in his words, “a particular type of black who was not ready to toe the white line and did not voice opinions.”

Now 39 and living in South Africa, Pswarayi believes he suffered systematic discrimination at the hands of the white administrators and selectors, who blocked his route to become one of the earliest black players to play cricket for Zimbabwe.

And Pswarayi doesn’t pull any punches when talking about Henry Olonga, the man who would eventually become the first black to achieve the feat after debuting against Pakistan in 1995.

Contributing to an online publication in 2009, Pswarayi labelled the ex-Zimbabwe quick an “opportunist” who lacked the moral right to stage the black armband protest to “mourn the death of democracy” in Zimbabwe as Olonga did alongside colleague Andy Flower during the 2003 World Cup.

When the Daily News tracked Pswarayi in South Africa this week, the former fast bowler was not ready to change his opinion on his former training partner, as well as the political situation in his homeland.

“That was a strong opinion indeed and I have reflected on it often and wished I was more tempered,” Pswarayi says. “Each man has a right to his views and I respect that. To my mind at the time, where Zimbabwe Cricket was battling to accept black cricketers as equals Olonga never stood up and voiced against what was at times blatant racism when it came to selection and opportunity; and yet there was the armband protest. Politics and sport never make a good mix at the best of times. As we all know, there is a lot to the land question in Zimbabwe than just the land invasions of 2000. That story goes back over 100 years. The protest was ill -conceived I felt, but as they say, ‘to each his own’.”

The time was around the early 90s leading to the mid-90s, and a generation of sufficiently talented black cricketers was beginning to emerge in good numbers.

Pswarayi, alongside such equally-abled black boys as Henry Olonga, Trevor Madondo and George Tandi – who like him enjoyed the privilege of Group A schools grooming – were the pick of the crop and knocking hard on selectors’ doors.

“I remember those times well,” Pswarayi recalls. 

“In fact, Pakistan was touring at that time in 1995 and Olonga and I were picked to play in the same three-day warm-up against Pakistan, which had players like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Based on that performance, the selectors felt Olonga was the man to pick in that series and by extension became the first black cricketer to play for the national team. Of course, it was a bit of a blow for me. My goal, since the age of 15, was to become that first player of colour to do that. I felt I was good enough to be a national player given the team we had. I was by no means a finished product. Neither Olonga or I were, but we both had ability, that was plain to see.”

Despite the race issues, Pswarayi says the game was excellently administered those days.

“Cricket in those days was very tough. That was a time when Zimbabwe was entering the Test arena and there was extremely tough competition for places,” he says.

“It was a great time to develop and hone your skills. The system was very well laid out. One went from school cricket to club level and then on to the provincial set-up and first-class cricket. Thereafter, from first-class cricket you competed to play for the Presidents XI and for Zimbabwe A before you could be considered for national colours. It was rigorous. Even at club level, clubs were putting out A, B and C teams to play in the league each weekend.

“However, in terms of the race situation it was a bit of a mine field. Cricket on the side-lines took on a skulduggery approach. With the advent of Test cricket came the power games the administrators would play behind the scenes. Which player from which province would play for Zimbabwe, who would go on tour, stuff like that. Heavy lobbying started taking place behind the scenes for players to get picked. During this time, cricket was almost exclusively a white-run sport at the senior levels, but I must acknowledge that (long-serving ZC chairman) Peter Chingoka was already part of this administration, but he was severely outnumbered in terms of representation and it was tough for him to enforce change at that time. (Former ZC vice-chairman) Justice (Ahmed) Ebrahim also became part of the administration during this time.

“Add a dimension of black cricketers to this mix and the matrix was even more interesting. Zimbabwe had entered the 90s without having produced a national black cricketer and the pressure was on. It seemed to me that white cricket at the provincial and national level were adamant to keep control of the game and that spilt into the change rooms. In the early and mid-90s a strong clique of senior white cricketers emerged at the national level. They along with the senior administration held sway in selection and influence. Suddenly you needed more than cricketing ability to represent your province or country. You needed support from the right people in power. I recall several instances having long discussions with Peter Chingoka about the fairness of the system within and how selection actually worked in reality, because at times, merit did not seem to be the only criteria.

“Race became very sensitive in selection. It was acknowledged black players were necessary for the mix of the team for political correctness, but few acknowledged or cared to admit there were black and Indian players worthy of consideration – even at that time.

“At a point it felt as if you had to be a particular type of black to play for Zim, one that toed the white line and did not voice opinions. Outspoken blacks like myself and Madondo were side-lined.”

Bernard Wirikidzaishe Stephen Pswarayi was born in Highfield, Harare, on May 16, 1975, and describes his upbringing in the high density suburb as “good and solid.”

His mother is a nurse and his father used to work as an extension officer for the Ministry of Lands in the 80s.

His early years were also spent in Chivhu, where his father was deployed to carry out extension work and introduce black farmers to agriculture. Pswarayi describes the process as “very slow because very little land changed hands through the willing-buyer willing-seller process.”

Young Bernard’s sporting abilities manifested early in his life, and the boy was offered a bursary to Peterhouse College at the recommendation of a parent at his primary school, whose husband was a teacher at the Marondera school.

He came through the ranks, from club cricket for Harare Sports Club and Universals, to Mashonaland and Mashonaland Under-24 and then the brink of national selection, which was never to be in the end.

Although settled comfortably in South Africa, where he runs a branding and marketing consultancy in Johannesburg, the Rhodes University and Wits graduate still keenly follows the game in Zimbabwe and feels saddened by the state the game finds itself in.

“What has happened to Zimbabwe Cricket since the rebel issue shows as plain as day that if you are put into a position of power and responsibility you need to wield a steady hand. I feel that this administration took its eye off the ball and cricket was no longer central to what they were doing,” says Pswarayi.

“The standard of cricket has generally dropped, the cricketing system has been destroyed. We talk less about cricket now and more about ZC board machinations. I believe the administration got too bloated at the expense of development, facilities and players.

“I believe the mix of people running the game in the administration is not right. There are not enough people who intimately understand the game. The nuances of developing a top cricketer, of putting in place a system that allows these cricketers to develop, is not in place. It is impossible to get talented schoolboys into a national set-up and expect results. Cricket is a game of the mind as much as it is of athletic prowess. Players need to mature, be given guidance and get panel beaten into the right mind-set to compete at the highest level. Facilities are in disarray, the league is constantly disrupted. We need a return back to basics.”

Pswarayi adds he has constantly hit a brick wall in his efforts to contribute something to the game in his country.  

“I have tried over many years to engage Mr. Chingoka and the administration in an effort to contribute in some way. I have been unsuccessful. I would love to be involved. Letters I have written have gone unanswered. Visits and meetings I have tried to set up with both Mr. Chingoka and Mr. Bvute, when he was there, never materialised.

“I know Chingoka very well. He gave me my first cap as a 12-year-old having being selected to play for the Partridges. He saw my growth and development as a cricketer. I have respect for the man and what he has generally contributed to the game, but the last decade has not been his best.”

*We will run the second and final part of the Pswarayi interview midweek.

Post a comment

Readers are kindly requested to refrain from using abusive, vulgar, racist, tribalistic, sexist, discriminatory and hurtful language when posting their comments on the Daily News website.
Those who transgress this civilised etiquette will be barred from contributing to our online discussions.
- Editor

Your email address will not be shared.