The men whose protests made a World Cup contest take a backseat © Getty Images
The men whose protests made a World Cup contest take a backseat © Getty Images

February 10, 2003 witnessed Namibia’s World Cup debut, the first World Cup match played in Zimbabwe, and Craig Wishart’s 172, but is remembered for Andy Flower and Henry Olonga’s protest against the Robert Mugabe regime. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a day when cricket was overshadowed by the courage of two men in front of their countrymen and Government.

Andy Flower and Henry Olonga had planned it out a month before ICC World Cup 2003 had started. Flower had asked Olonga to meet at a News Cafe, Harare, where they planned the protest. The torture of Job Sikhala, a Zimbabwean MP, had triggered the decision. Both men knew their lives could be at risk. Both men knew their cricket careers for Zimbabwe would be as good as over. But both men decided to go ahead with it.

Flower’s was the brain behind the protest. In an interview with NewZimbabwe, Olonga later said: “Andy Flower needed a black person, and a black person with some influence. I certainly had that: I’d sung a song and people loved it. I was the first black player to play for Zimbabwe, and if I said something it had some weight. Andy is world class, I’m not, but we’d got a combination of sport and music — Posh and Becks, if you like”.

Flower and Olonga had originally planned on pulling out of the World Cup, but decided against it. They discussed hard, and planned out the course of action. Olonga later said that he was influenced by Maximus, the character portrayed by Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator: “I want to be the slave who defies an emperor” was the thought that crossed his mind.

Nobody barring the press had an idea of what Flower and Olonga had were about to do. Even their teammates, with the sole exception of Grant Flower, had no idea. Then, just before the match, they announced in front of the press that they would don black armbands during the match as a form of protest against the Robert Mugabe regime: “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.”

Then, before they stepped on to the ground, Flower told his teammates: “H and I have written a statement, if you want to read it.” The cricketers were obviously astonished. When Vince Hogg of the Zimbabwean Cricket Union asked whether they knew of the consequence, the response was iconic: “Do you know the consequences of us not doing anything?”

Spare a thought for the poor Namibians. A lot must have gone through their minds when they took field at Harare that day in World Cup 2003; it was, after all, their first match in the biggest stage in world cricket. They may even have foreseen a mauling of the kind Craig Wishart had in store for them, but they had probably never imagined the match would take back-seat.

The protest

Heath Streak decided to bat, and while Mark Vermeulen decided to set up camp, Wishart launched a furious assault on the hapless Namibians. The scorecard made surreal reading after 10 overs: while Vermeulen had crawled to a 20-ball two, Wishart had raced to a 38-ball 36 with nine boundaries.

It was not until the 20th over that Vermeulen decided to chance his arms and he hit the 43-year old Lennie Louw for three fours in an over. The crafty Louw soon had his revenge, when Vermeulen hit one back to him, and he held the catch close to his neck. With the score on 107 after 130 balls, Andy Flower walked out.

It was the first time the spectators realised something was wrong: Flower was wearing a black armband. They realised a protest was on; they probably made a guess, but were left in the dark as Wishart and Flower batted on. During the innings Olonga was seen openly in a black armband in the players’ enclosure. The protest was on.

Meanwhile, Flower lofted Deon Kotze into the stands and looked in murderous mood before he edged one to Morne Karg off Jen-Berrie Burger for a 29-ball 39. Grant Flower joined Wishart, and the pair ended up adding an unbroken 166 in 117 balls. While Flower remained unbeaten on a 55-ball 78, Wishart, who had scored his 50 off 55 balls, reached his 100 at exactly a run a ball, 150 from 138, and finished on 172 not out from 151 balls.

Wishart’s score was the highest for Zimbabwe at that point of time. It has subsequently been overtaken by Charles Coventry (194 not out) and Hamilton Masakadza (178 not out). Wishart’s onslaught, however, remains the highest World Cup score by a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe’s team total was also a new One-Day International (ODI) record for them. Though they subsequently scored 351 for seven against Kenya at Mombasa in 2008-09, their total that day remains their highest World Cup score.

Saved by the nick of time

Streak had Riaan Walters caught-behind off the first ball of the Namibian innings. Jen-Berrie Burger scored a quickfire 18-ball 26 before falling to Streak, and though they reached 80 for two in the 17th over Namibia were soon reduced to 98 for five after 24 overs. Louis Burger and Deon Kotze added six in the next over. Grant Flower bowled a dot-ball before the heavens poured.

The match never started, and Zimbabwe won the contest by 86 runs (the Duckworth-Lewis par score after 25.1 overs was 191). The matches, as one may remember, had to consist of innings of at least 25 overs for a result, which meant that Zimbabwe would not have won, had the rain started two balls earlier.

What followed?

- Olonga was dropped for 6 matches, presumably because of poor form, and played only in the Super Sixes match against Kenya at Bloemfontein. Flower was, of course, “undroppable” in Zimbabwe: he scored 39, 22, 62, 71, 37, 63, and 38 in the tournament, finishing with an average of 47.42.

- Flower and Olonga were asked not to wear black armbands the next match. Olonga resorted to black wristbands during his the 12th man duties. Once that was stopped, Flower shifted to white armbands.

- Olonga was charged with treason. Had he been arrested, he would have been killed by the Mugabe Government. However, the last league match between Zimbabwe and Pakistan was washed out, which meant that Zimbabwe qualified for the Super Sixes. Since the Super Sixes matches were played in South Africa, Olonga got a chance to get out of the country.

- Harsh treatment awaited Olonga when the team checked out at Port Elizabeth. He was given his ticket, and the team management refused to carry him to the airport. Ozias Bvute, in charge of the team, also refused to pay his hotel bills, but he had to back down. Those in charge of security gave Olonga a lift to the airport; he bade his mates goodbye at the Johannesburg airport; and while Douglas Hondo carried Olonga’s kit back, Olonga stayed back at Johannesburg with only one change of clothes.

- Life was not easy for Olonga after the match. His girlfriend sent him an email soon afterwards, calling their relationship off. There were threatening emails as well, one being “You stupid nigger, I hope Mugabe is going to find you.”

- Both men quit international cricket and left Zimbabwe after the tournament. Though Flower became a stalwart for Essex, an injury brought a premature end to Olonga’s First-Class career. He kept playing for Lashings XI till 2007.

- Both Olonga and Flower were granted Honorary Life Membership of MCC in October 2003. It was an exception on MCC’s behalf, since the Honour is usually bestowed upon cricketers who have retired from First-Class cricket.

- Blood, Sweat and Treason — Olonga’s excellent autobiography with special references to those troubled times — came out in July 2010.

- On a side note, Namibia lost all six matches in the World Cup.

Brief scores:

Zimbabwe 340 for 2 in 50 overs (Craig Wishart 172*, Grant Flower 78*) beat Namibia 104 for 5 in 25.1 overs by 86 runs (revised target).

Man of the Match: Craig Wishart.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)