With the state of the game almost mirroring some of the political struggles in Zimbabwe, the history of the Zimbabwean cricket team has been addled with controversy. With the recent application for liquidation filed by Heath Streak leaving question marks regarding the future of the test team, Zimbabwean cricket is seemingly experiencing one of the darkest times in the history of the sport in their country. A lot of this tension can be traced back to mid-2000s, when the tyranny of Robert Mugabe’s government led to Zimbabwean cricket losing their test status for several years (only to be reinstated in 2011). With this in mind, let’s look at this period and assess how this period led to the downfall of cricket in the country.
Zimbabwe Cricket during 2000-2006
Many of the issues surrounding the state of the game in Zimbabwe coincide with the actions of Robert Mugabe and his government in the 1990s and 2000s. Rumours of Mugabe’s interference in the game had been floated around for many years, namely funding cuts to the game around this time. Players such as Andy Flower, Heath Streak and Henry Olonga voiced their discomfort, culminating in a black armband protest during the 2003 World Cup, beginning against Namibia. This protest was against the ‘Death of Democracy’ that had occurred under Mugabe’s regime. Olonga and Flower state that they’d hoped this move would ‘help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation’. This led to both men essentially being exiled from that national team. Whilst Flower announced his retirement and moved to England, Olonga was forced to flee the country after being wanted for treason against the Mugabe government, which could have resulted in his death.
This political unrest also led to an unwillingness from foreign nations to play cricket in the country. Australian Prime Minister John Howard expressed concerns for the Australian cricket team playing in the country after he led the charge to kick Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth of Nations for their land seizure program, which led to the death of many white Zimbabwean farmers. England took this a step further by forfeiting their opening game in Zimbabwe at the 2003 World Cup as a sign of opposition to the regime. This action from the English would lead to other countries either banning their teams from touring, or with teams facing pressure to boycott the nation.
John Howard had banned the Australian team from touring the nation due to these concerns and New Zealand had faced pressure from Amnesty international to boycott their 2005 tour (which ultimately didn’t occur as New Zealand didn’t want to risk a three Million USD fine and their 2011 World Cup bid being compromised)
The state of Zimbabwean cricket would skydive in 2004-05 under the tyranny of Mugabe’s government. Sparked by resistance to the quota system implemented in 2001 by the ZCU to include three black players in every Zimbabwean squad by September 2004, Heath Steak was infamously removed as the Zimbabwean cricket captain. Heath’s captaincy had been affected by political turmoil, as his stance against the quota system and players pay had forced him to resign as the Zimbabwean cricket captain in 2000. He was reappointed in 2002 and during this time, he was further criticised by not taking a stronger stance on the Black Armband Protest of Flower and Olonga. A lack of clarity with the Zimbabwean board and the country’s civil unrest forced him to resign.
15 senior players, including players such as Grant Flower and Andy Blignaut, risked their international career by standing with Streak, conversely protesting Mugabe’s use of his ‘henchman’ as board members and banning international journalists from covering the game in Zimbabwe in a fascistic move design to quell any opposition to Mugabe’s governance. This would lead to all of these players being dismissed from Zimbabwean cricket and a young, inexperienced squad led by Tatenda Taibu being walloped by most every team over the next two years (Although Blignaut, Streak and several others would re-join the squad for several tests in 2005).
In early 2006, Mugabe announced Zimbabwe’s withdrawal from test cricket after years of contention with senior players. While this was done due to the declining quality of the international team and due to the poor standards of the Logan Cup (the domestic first class tournament), the consensus was that the catalyst was the previously mentioned incidents. The next six years would be marred with poor performances, poor pay and poor governance.
This was highlighted by Mark Vermeulen attempting to burn down the offices of Zimbabwe cricket. Although he was later cleared on grounds of mental illness, this incident was suspected to be linked to the political tension at the time. Vermeulen was known for being troublesome as he had gotten into a brawl with fans at a match between Werneth and Aston in England, and in 2003 after defying management orders and not travelling with the rest of the Zimbabwe squad during a tour to England, however it has been bandied around that he could have been put up by a disgruntled group as players as he was an easy fall guy.
Zimbabwean cricket was a cautionary story for cricketing minnows looking for the elusive test status within cricket. A country of tremendous political dissidence, the governance of the country and retroactively the cricket team were victim to the regime of Robert Mugabe. With Heath Streak’s recent filing of liquidation a worrying sign for the future, the Zimbabwean cricket association risk repeating the actions of their past if they continue down their current road of turmoil,
A Big thanks to ESPN Cricinfo for providing player information regarding Henry Olonga, Heath Streak, Andy and Grant Flower, Andy Blignaut and Tatenda Taibu. They also provided valuable information regarding the Mark Vermeulen Arson case in a 2008 article titled ‘Vermeulen cleared of arson’. Thanks also has to go to The Independent UK and Brian McKenna providing background on the Zimbabwe player race quota in a 2001 Article titled ‘Zimbabwe cricketers split over race quota’, Tristan Holme for his article ‘Zimbabwe Cricket – On murky waters waiting for the times to change, and finally, to the TRT World YouTube Video titled ‘How Robert Mugabe killed Zimbabwe Cricket’ for information regarding Mugabe’s involvement in the destruction of cricket in the country.