Death Knell Sounds for Zimbabwean Cricket

The total collapse of the game matches the country's overall decline.

Death Knell Sounds for Zimbabwean Cricket

The total collapse of the game matches the country's overall decline.

Tuesday, 7 February, 2006
In the context of what is really important, the game of cricket comes very low on most sane people's lists.

However, its calamitous disintegration in Zimbabwe is a symbol of the wider collapse of a country, which was once Africa's "breadbasket", but is now the continent's basket case - something so flawed that it is almost beyond help.

The country has the world's fastest declining economy, with inflation approaching 600 per cent. It has seen nearly a million poor people driven from their homes in the government's Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth). Some 5000 mostly white-owned commercial farms have been confiscated and given to loyalist supporters of President Robert Mugabe in government, the judiciary and armed forces.

In just the last few weeks, Zimbabwe Cricket, the game’s governing body here, has lost its Test Match status, and now the domestic game finds itself without any Test-class players and probably soon without any professional cricketers at all. Its remaining thirty-five first-class cricketers have gone on strike in protest against corrupt administration and because their fees and salaries have not been paid for several months. Most plan to quit the country.

"It is without question the nastiest mess professional cricketers have ever found themselves in during peace time," said leading British cricket writer Scyld Berry.

Unfortunately, it is an only too familiar Zimbabwean crisis. It surfaced during the 2003 World Cup when Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe's first black international cricketer, and his white colleague Andy Flower, the country's greatest ever batsman, took to the field in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, wearing black armbands "to mourn the death of democracy in our belovèd country".

It continued when the country's remaining top world-class cricketers, such as Flower and his brother Grant, Heath Streak, Sean Ervine and some fifteen others, quit Zimbabwe, citing racism among administrators, especially from the managing director of Zimbabwe Cricket, Ozias Bvute, Mugabe's personal enforcer on the national cricket board.

When a board member questioned why President Mugabe was Zimbabwe Cricket's patron, Bvute threatened him, "If the member knows what is good for his health, he will desist from asking such questions."

The game in this country effectively died when its young Test captain, the brilliant 22-year-old Tatenda Taibu, fled the country last December to pursue his career in Bangladesh, citing the fact that he and his family had been physically threatened by a cricket official following his allegations of maladministration by Bvute and Zimbabwe Cricket chairman Peter Chingoka.

Now the country's residual first-class players, none of whom would get into any of the world's nine other Test Match teams, have gone on strike. Their complaint is mainly about unpaid fees and salaries totalling around a million US dollars. Zimbabwe's leading human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, is representing them in a High Court action against Zimbabwe Cricket in an attempt to release funds.

At the same time, former national coach Phil Simmons, a former top West Indian Test batsman, is suing Zimbabwe Cricket for illegal dismissal last August and seeking reinstatement of his salary of 10,500 US dollars a month.

Zimbabwe Cricket offered to pay off the cricketers' arrears in increasingly worthless local Zimbabwe dollars at an old rate of 25,000 to one US dollar, when the real rate on the street is now more than 150,000 to one US dollar. The government, awash with inflation, has just issued a new 50,000 dollar banknote. It sounds a lot, but it is not even enough to buy a loaf of bread.

"I'm sure that the taking of legal action signals the end for cricket in Zimbabwe," a former international player told IWPR.

And Clive Field, the players' representative, said, "Zimbabwe Cricket has really had it now. The players are simply walking away. Some have made it clear they want to get their dues and pursue their careers elsewhere."

The country's best Test Match fast bowler, Tinashe Panyangara, has been signed by a minor English club, Holton-le-Clay, in the Lincolnshire League. He is finalising his work permit with the British authorities.

Dion Ebrahim, currently the most experienced Test player and the country's former vice-captain, is quitting to pursue academic studies in Britain.

Plans by Douglas Hondo, a fast bowler and perhaps the country's most popular cricketer, and Prosper Utseya, at 20 one of Zimbabwe's most promising young internationals, to relaunch their cricket careers abroad are at advanced stages.

Players have made plans to leave the country because they are unsure that even if they win their court case that Zimbabwe Cricket has the money to pay them. The board made huge losses last year despite receiving substantial payments from the Dubai-based International Cricket Council, ICC, which runs world cricket. Last December, the homes of Bvute and Chingoka were raided by Reserve Bank fraud squad investigators. They were grilled about alleged misuse of foreign funds, totalling some 22 million US dollars, earned by Zimbabwe Cricket from Test matches and one-day internationals. The two men have not been prosecuted.

Even before the players decided to quit en masse, Mugabe had killed the game stone dead. In early January, he told the government to take over Zimbabwe Cricket - in defiance of ICC regulations that national administrations must not be in government hands. Mugabe appointed a senior army man, Brigadier Gibson Mashingaidze, chairman of the government's Sports and Recreation Commission, to run Zimbabwe Cricket.

Mashingaidze immediately sacked all Asian and white administrators in Zimbabwe Cricket and withdrew the country from Test Match cricket before the other nine members of the ICC demanded Zimbabwe's expulsion. Brigadier Mashingaidze said Zimbabwe would continue to play one-day internationals, but without any first-class players that will be impossible. Already the West Indies and Pakistan are considering suing Zimbabwe Cricket for failing to fulfil contractual obligations by sending the country's best cricketers on impending and long-planned scheduled tours to those two countries.

After the government took over cricket administration, players' representative Clive Field said, "I think we're stuffed, more stuffed than we've ever been. If this is the bunch that's going to help deliver cricket, I don't know what they are going to be delivering at the end of it.

"I don't think it's going to be cricket. It's going to be a corpse."

Tino Zhakata is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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