Simon Barnes in the Times called it a "powerful blow for sanity, decency and democracy".
On paper it was a low key match – co-host Zimbabwe opening their 2003 World Cup campaign against Namibia at the Harare Sports Club. Yet, the atmosphere was charged with uncertainty and turmoil.
England had voiced open reservations about playing in Harare, security issues vying with moral misgivings in their decision making process. New Zealand had also refused to turn out in Nairobi.
The Zimbabwean cricket authorities, along with the ruling Zanu-PF party, were on the edge about the handful of matches allocated to the country. There was every possibility of the opposition parties seizing the opportunity to demonstrate against Robert Mugabe’s regime with the world looking on. A year earlier, a demonstrator protesting outside a One Day International at Bulawayo had been killed in the act. In the potentially combustible situation, the International Cricket Council (ICC) was perched smugly on their habitual fence, letting events flow on their own.
It was with a sense of relief that February 10 was welcomed, with cricket action finally about to commence, taking the focus away from the atrocities in the nation which was by now openly run by the most deplorable third-world thugs.
However, just an hour before the start of play, ripples of rumour started doing rounds, leading to a furore in the dressing room and jolting the administration with a brutal shock. The leaders of the nation had been dealt a blow from within the national cricket team. Two of the senior-most cricketers of Zimbabwe, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, conveyed their decision to issue a media statement and wear black armbands “to mourn the death of democracy in the country”.
Planning the protest and execution
The plan of action had been well thought out. The two had met in a café a month earlier and Flower had laid down his cards in front of Olonga. And, while both were fully aware of the consequences of such an action, the plight of the countrymen took precedence for the cricketers. Their joint statement summed it up eloquently.
It began … “It is a great honour for us to take the field today to play for Zimbabwe in the World Cup… We are however deeply distressed about what is taking place in Zimbabwe in the midst of the World Cup and do not feel that we can take the field without indicating our feelings in a dignified manner and in keeping with the spirit of cricket…”
And it proceeded to lay bare the evils plaguing the nation. Facts known to almost everyone but seldom voiced with this amount of bravura in front of an international audience:
“We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed. We are aware that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans may even die in the coming months through a combination of starvation, poverty and Aids. We are aware that many people have been unjustly imprisoned and tortured simply for expressing their opinions about what is happening in the country. We have heard a torrent of racist hate speech directed at minority groups. We are aware that thousands of Zimbabweans are routinely denied their right to freedom of expression. We are aware that people have been murdered, raped, beaten and had their homes destroyed because of their beliefs and that many of those responsible have not been prosecuted. We are also aware that many patriotic Zimbabweans oppose us even playing in the World Cup because of what is happening.”
Finally it concluded with the plea: “In all the circumstances we have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe. In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so we pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our Nation.”
The authorities were shell-shocked. Olonga and Flower were immediately confronted by Vince Hogg, the CEO of the Zimbabwe board. However, negotiations were futile. The two cricketers were not in a mood to back down. The official squirmed within the monumental constraints placed on him. It resulted in a deadlock. The decision had been made and there was no turning back.
Among their teammates, only Grant Flower, the brother of Andy, had been aware of their plans. The crowd got to know what was going on only in the 22nd over. At 107 for one, Andy Flower walked out to bat wearing a black armband. There were photographs which captured Olonga sporting his armband on the players’ balcony.
The match was a one-sided affair with Zimbabwe piling up 340 for two, Flower contributing 39 in 29 balls with three fours and a six. Showers interrupted and Namibia lost by the Duckworth-Lewis method, finishing at 104 for five in 25.1 overs. Olonga bowled three tidy overs for eight runs.
Both men were aware of the possible consequences. Olonga even voiced that the authorities knew where he lived and could take him out if they wanted to.
In the Daily Telegraph, Donald Trelford wrote that the two players "shine out like diamonds in a pile of mud".
However, Jonathan Moyo, the infamous propaganda minister of the Mugabe regime, dismissed Olonga’s role calling him Uncle Tom with a black skin and a white mask. According to him, it was clear that Olonga had just put his name to the statement and was not an author.
In a reaction that defied logic and belief, the Zimbabwe board reported the pair to the ICC. But, in a game of political ping-pong, the ball was expertly lobbed back to their court by the bosses of the cricketing world.
Dropping Andy Flower would have been the preferred course of action for the Zimbabwe Cricket board, but for the fact that he was the one and only world-class player in the country. Besides it was very likely that senior players would rise up in revolt if he was omitted.
Hence, Olonga had to bear the entire weight of the axe. Chief selector Max Ebrahim supposedly sent across a directive that Olonga was not to be used even as a 12th man under any circumstance.
The pace bowler was brought back for the Super Six encounter against Kenya, a dead game of academic importance, ostensibly as political eyewash. However, that was to be his last match for Zimbabwe. He announced his retirement at the conclusion of the game against Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe’s final match in the tournament. The managing director of the cricket board, Ozias Bvute, personally intervened to ensure that Olonga was not allowed to get on the team bus after the match. He was driven to the airport by security personnel.
After the Namibia game, Flower played the remaining matches wearing black sweatbands – and his attire was quickly mimicked by hundreds of protestors in the stands. His great career too came to an end as Zimbabwe’s World Cup campaign ended.
Political statements in the sporting arena
The sporting arena has witnessed resounding political statements throughout the course of history. The Olympic Games in particular have often been used and abused for political demonstrations, but the initiators have tended to be the governments of the participating or boycotting countries rather than the athletes themselves.
In 1908, Irish athletes boycotted the London games protesting against Britain's refusal to grant independence to Ireland. At Rome in 1960, the Taiwanese contingent marched with a placard stating “Under Protest” when told they could not bear the name “Republic of China”, but had to use Taiwan or Formosa.
In 1980, sixty-two countries led by the United States of America boycotted the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The decision, however, did not reflect the opinion of the American athletes, but was one of the least popular directives implemented by the office of Jimmy Carter. In response Soviet Union and the other Warsaw pact members organised a boycott of the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles.
If we consider statements made by sportsmen themselves, the Black Power Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the Mexico Olympics of 1968 continues to be the most famous example.
In 1936 and 1938, the two heavyweight title bouts between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis took on proportions of battles between good and evil, between two ideologies, between the proclaimed Nazi supremacy and the honour of the rest of the world. While it did not necessarily reflect the political motivations of the two great boxers themselves, the American president Franklin D Roosevelt and the German chancellor Adolf Hitler both attached immense importance to the fixtures as symbol of national pride.
Years later another boxer, Muhammad Ali, actively used his sporting status to protest against the Vietnam War.
A year after Flower and Olonga’s demonstration at the World Cup, Carlos Delgado decided to stop standing for "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch of Major League Baseball games – in protest against the wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the cricket field, Barry Richards and Mike Procter organised a sterling protest against the apartheid policy. During a match to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the formation of the Republic of South Africa in 1971, players from both teams - including Procter, Richards and the Pollock brothers, Graeme and Peter, walked off after one ball, issuing a joint statement: “We cricketers feel that the time has come for an expression of our views. We fully support the South African Cricket Association's application to invite non-whites to tour Australia, if they are good enough, and further subscribe to merit being the only criterion on the cricket field.”
The stand taken by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga ranks right up there with the most effective and courageous acts among all these political demonstrations seen on the sporting field.
Mugabe’s regime continues unabated and the situation in Zimbabwe remains as perilous as ever. But, the two noble cricketers did their bit to highlight the plight of their countrymen on the world stage, at the cost of flourishing careers and personal safety.
(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)
First Published: February 10, 2013, 11:44 am