The protests were periodically loud, but absolutely peaceful. One member of the Tatchell Outrage group even dressed up as a cricketer with a blood-soaked bandage around his head. The police intervened just once, when a banner implored the passing cars to “Honk for freedom in Zimbabwe” © Getty Images
The protests were periodically loud, but absolutely peaceful. One member of the Tatchell Outrage group even dressed up as a cricketer with a blood-soaked bandage around his head. The police intervened just once, when a banner implored the passing cars to “Honk for freedom in Zimbabwe” © Getty Images

May 22, 2003. The England-Zimbabwe Test match at Lord’s got underway amidst controversy and protests. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the day when ECB feared severe demonstrations against the Mugabe regime as the hosts took on the cricket side from a country torn apart by civil and political unrest.

Barely three months ago, England had refused to play at Harare during the World Cup. During Zimbabwe’s opening match against Namibia in the tournament, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga delivered what Simon Barnes in The Times called “a powerful blow for sanity, decency and democracy.” The greatest batsman Zimbabwe has ever produced, and the star fast bowler, conveyed their decision to issue a media statement and wear black armbands “to mourn the death of democracy in the country”. As expected, the two did not play for their country after the World Cup.

Yet, the Zimbabwe team under the captaincy of Heath Streak arrived at Gatwick to play England in a two-Test series. With the country tottering under the Mugabe regime, the side was also terribly short of quality. With Andy Flower having passed from the scene, his brother Grant was the only one who had scored a century and his average of 30 was by far the highest the team boasted.

However, the main problem lay elsewhere. The tour was a political hot potato, and ECB wanted to get over with the series as quickly as possible without the threatening waves of protest crashing against the field of action.

The first words of protest were voiced by Kate Hoey, the Labour MP and former Minister of Sport. In the Daily Telegraph of April 19, Hooey wrote, “The Zimbabwe Cricket Union have [President Robert] Mugabe as their patron. Yet on May 22 at Lord’s, the most famous ground in the world, England will play against a country soaked in the blood of men, women and children who have done nothing other than stand up for the freedoms and rights that we in this country take for granted.”

It was an invitation for the ‘Stop the Tour’ campaign to start rolling, and there were soon claims that the movement had obtained the support of around 100 Members of the Parliament. No doubt the ECB officials hardly slept on the eve of the Lord’s Test.

However, on the day of the Test, it was almost all quiet in St John’s Wood. The handful of demonstrators who assembled outside the Grace Gates were periodically loud, but absolutely peaceful. Some banners and whistles were all they got up to. The increased security and extensive examination of bags proved largely unnecessary.

The serial agitator Peter Tatchell was there, and some telling slogans were in evidence. One went rather askew from reality by accusing ECB chief-executive Tim Lamb of being ‘Mugabe’s own Lord Haw Haw’. One member of the Tatchell Outrage group even dressed up as a cricketer with a blood-soaked bandage around his head. The police intervened just once, when a banner implored the passing cars to “Honk for freedom in Zimbabwe”. But, Tatchell stepped in when the agitator was asked to move, and the wise policemen pressed no further. Several indulged in this rather easy activism as they drove past. Inside the ground Hoey was an expert politician, speaking to the media, approaching spectators and handing out armbands.

There were just two low key interruptions when a couple of Tatchell’s men walked on to the pitch brandishing placards. But, that was about all the excitement that the protests produced.

The Stop the Tour movement went crucially unsupported by two political parties — the ruling British Labour Party and the Zimbabwean opposition party. The former were not in a position for active support, with cabinet minister Tessa Jowell having approved the tour in a letter to ECB. The latter, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), were of the opinion that cricket was a useful tool for redirecting the attention of the British media towards the atrocities in Zimbabwe. This was specifically because while millions of Zimbabweans faced food shortages, the world media had been caught up in the US-led war against Iraq. Much of the plight in the country had not been reported.

On the field it was a one-sided affair and England wrapped up the Test within three days in spite of a curtailed first day — picking up 19 wickets on the third day.

Brief scores:

England 472 (Marcus Trescothick 59, Mark Butcher 137, Anthony McGrath 69, Ashley Giles 52) beat Zimbabwe 147 (Dion Ebrahim 68; James Anderson 5 for 73) and 233 (Mark Vermeulen 61, Travis Friend 43; Mark Butcher 4 for 60) by an innings and 92 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)