Zimbabwe Cricket Crisis Deepens

Flight into exile of Zimbabwe's young cricket captain shows sport and politics in his country are inexorably intertwined.

Zimbabwe Cricket Crisis Deepens

Flight into exile of Zimbabwe's young cricket captain shows sport and politics in his country are inexorably intertwined.

Zimbabwe's brilliant young cricket captain Tatenda Taibu’s decision last week to flee and pursue his profession in Bangladesh has pushed the future of the game in the troubled southern African country to - and perhaps over - the precipice.

Taibu, at 22 the world's youngest Test Cricket captain, is the second young black player to walk out on Zimbabwe cricket - in his case, because he and his family were allegedly physically threatened by a cricket administration official.

Taibu's departure follows that of fast bowler Henry Olonga, who went into hiding in 2003 after wearing a black armband on the cricket field to protest against the oppressive policies of Mugabe and his ruling ZANU PF party.

Sport and politics not only mix in Zimbabwe, they are inexorably intertwined.

Commenting on Taibu's flight from Zimbabwe and the captaincy of his country to play club cricket in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, Olonga, now living in England, said, "It's uncanny how what is happening in Zimbabwe cricket so closely mirrors what is also happening in the political arena.

"How can world cricket turn a blind eye when all that has happened in Zimbabwe goes against the core values that make this game so credible?"

The Dubai-based International Cricket Council, ICC, has remained silent about the latest sad event in Zimbabwe's cascading cricket crisis.

Historically, the ZANU PF men who administer their country's cricket have said the problem is white racism in a game that for decades was dominated by players from the white minority community.

But Taibu, promoted by these administrators as the star example of the new black face of Zimbabwe cricket, said race was not behind the crisis in the game. “It's not [the cause]. About ninety per cent of the cricketers in this country are black. You are hearing it from the horses' mouth now, as the captain representing the players,” he said after emerging from hiding - following the alleged threats - to announce his departure from Zimbabwe and international cricket.

"Zimbabwe Cricket [official name of the body administering cricket] has shown by its past that it will not hesitate to bully players. We have no choice but to speak out. We are tired of being threatened by ZC. We are tired of the way ZC has sought to split us and attack us individually. We have lost confidence in the ability of the current incumbent chairman of Zimbabwe Cricket, Peter Chingoka, and the managing director, Ozias Bvute.

"Usually I am a quiet guy, but when these guys [Chingoka and Bvute] started to put the race issue as the major cause of problems in cricket, I felt I had to make a stand and tell the truth. It's as simple as it can be: cricket is not being run properly … They were lying to people that it was all racial."

Taibu claims he received threats after he addressed a press conference on behalf of Zimbabwe's international players to criticise Chingoka's and Bvute's administration of the game.

"The monster is now devouring its own," said Peter Roebuck, a cricket writer and former captain of the Somerset cricket team in the English County Championship. "Taibu is black, patriotic, intelligent, independent. Not so easy to cast him as a stooge. His is the true voice of Zimbabwe cricket … [not] the illegitimate government and the cricket board, which are interchangeable."

President Mugabe is the patron of Zimbabwe Cricket, where his main ZANU PF placeman is Bvute, who once warned a board member who questioned Mugabe's prominent cricket role, "If the member knows what is good for his health, he will desist from asking such questions."

In purely cricket terms, the departure of Taibu is a disaster for the national team. After the exodus of Olonga and some fifteen senior white players following disputes with Chingoka and Bvute that took on racial tones, Taibu was the only remaining Zimbabwean player of truly international class: he led a team of other players who were no more than good club cricketers and who have suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of top test team like Australia, India, England and New Zealand. They were even beaten by Bangladesh, another cricket minnow for whom victory over Zimbabwe was its first test match victory.

The cricket crisis mirrors Zimbabwe's general political crisis. The country has the world's fastest declining economy; which has seen nearly a million poor black people driven from their homes in Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina [Operation drive Out The Filth]; and the confiscation of some 5000 white-owned commercial farms that have subsequently been given to Mugabe loyalists in government, the civil service, armed forces, judiciary and state media.

The cricket turmoil first surfaced during the 2003 Cricket World Cup, hosted by South Africa but with some matches being played in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Olonga, Zimbabwe's first black international, and his white colleague Andy Flower, the country's greatest ever batsman, took to the field in a World Cup match in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, wearing black armbands "to mourn the death of democracy in our beloved country". Further attacking Mugabe's regime, his role as patron of Zimbabwe Cricket and the machinations of Bvute, his cricket enforcer, the pair said, "We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed."

Mugabe immediately ordered the dropping of Olonga and Flower from the World Cup squad, but they were reinstated when their team mates said they would refuse to play in remaining World Cup fixtures if the two protesters were excluded.

Zimbabwe's next fixture was against Sri Lanka in the sleepy South African coastal town of East London. During the match, Olonga went on the run after seven plain-clothed officers from Zimbabwe's notorious secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, turned up in the small town in an apparent attempt to abduct him and take him back to Zimbabwe to face charges of treason, for which the punishment is death.

Olonga fled to a safe house near Johannesburg before seeking political asylum in Britain, along with Andy Flower, who now earns his living playing for the English county team Essex.

Zimbabwean cricket has been in constant turmoil ever since, with allegations and counter-allegations of racism flying between white players, who have left Zimbabwe in droves, and the black administrators loyal to Mugabe.

Unable to field a competitive side, Zimbabwe has had recently to throw into the deep end of international cricket youngsters, both black and white, barely out of their teens, including some who had not played meaningful domestic first-class cricket before entering the world arena.

Taibu, regarded by the cricket board until the past few weeks as a pliant black captain who would accommodate their every whim, was the last Zimbabwe player with a respectable international record. “For the first time since it became a Test-playing country in 1992, Zimbabwe arguably no longer has a player of Test class,” said Martin Williamson, managing editor of Cricinfo, the world's top cricket website.

In the latest twist in the continuing drama, the homes of Chingoka and Bvute were raided in early December by fraud squad investigators from the Reserve Bank. The two men were arrested and charged under the Exchange Control Act and are being grilled in detention about allegedly misused foreign funds, totalling some 13 million pounds sterling, earned by Zimbabwe Cricket from the ICC.

The raids were followed in early December by the detention of two of the newest Zimbabwe test players, Vusi Sibanda, 22, and Waddington Mwayenga, 21, together with Test team manager Babu Meman, on charges of violating foreign exchange laws. With inflation nearing 500 per cent and the economy in freefall, the Zimbabwe dollar is virtually worthless and foreign currency is scarce.

Asked who would be running Zimbabwe Cricket in the absence of the high-living Chingoka and Bvute, ZC media manager Lovemore Banda replied, "I have no idea. What do you mean?"

Commenting on the interrogations and arrests, Cricinfo's Williamson said, "In Zimbabwe, you can get away with just about anything as long as you don't upset people near the top of the food chain. If Zimbabwe Cricket loses the patronage of the government, the chances of its senior officials surviving are slim."

The final word, for the time being, goes to Taibu, now playing his cricket in a different hemisphere on a different continent. He told Cricinfo that if the current standoff continues there will be no cricket in Zimbabwe in the future. "We all know that it will die," he said. "So that effectively means we won't be able to field a team. Maybe Chingoka will open the bowling and Bvute will open the batting against West Indies next May [when Zimbabwe is scheduled to play its next test match]."

Tino Zhakata is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

Support our journalists