Zimbabweans take honours

By Paul Hayward in London
At last, a moral stand. But not by England’s cricketers. If it’s heroes you’re after, look no further than the Zimbabweans, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, who put themselves and their families at risk of reprisal Monday by issuing a statement denouncing their own president, Robert Mugabe, before marching on to a pitch in Harare to face Namibia.

The black armbands worn by Flower and Olonga carried all the ethical weight of Jesse Owens winning Olympic gold in front of Hitler, or Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam.

The England and Wales Cricket Board may be spooked by a death threat, but their main aim seems to be hanging on to their World Cup fees. The England players are protecting their own skins. Flower and Olonga, though, were trying to keep their motherland out of hell. Their only weapons in the face of Mugabe’s spreading inhumanity were a cricket bat, a ball and a collection of words that formed themselves into an arrow which punctured the whole inflated England debate.

While Nasser Hussain and his men peered out from their garret in Cape Town 2,000 miles away, two Zimbabweans reached for the pen and paper and then their cricket gear. Not for Flower and Olonga the easy option of fake pride, of heads-down political blindness of the sort which so afflicts the International Cricket Council and the tournament organisers.

This is what the players wrote: ``We cannot in good conscience 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 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.’’

This searing indictment of the Mugabe regime goes down as a landmark in modern sport, which becomes less morally informed by the day. You expect this kind of rhetoric from actors and artists far from the front line - but not athletes stepping out to play a game under a despot’s potentially vengeful gaze. Flower’s 39 runs against the Namibians should be honoured around the world. Olonga, a devout Christian, was Zimbabwe’s first black player. His defiance therefore carries special significance and authority.

The statement that preceded Flower’s knock rendered the England-Zimbabwe fixture in Harare irrelevant. Zimbabwe’s players have already won. The legal hair-splitting and death-threat brandishing that went on in Cape Town last night seemed more squalid than ever. The neutral now yearns to see one of the two Zimbabwean refuseniks smash the winning runs in the World Cup final, though Mugabe, naturally, would come off the killing fields to claim the glory.

Though the acronyms have been lost in a moral maze these past few days, the typical cricket fan will have no difficulty isolating the key points. The false idealism of the pan-African World Cup was bound to provide Mugabe with political succour. Zimbabwe should not have been one of the hosts. The British government were lamentably slow to spot the ethical implications of Feb 13 and provided no kind of political lead. The ECB and the players then invited the indignation of southern Africa by shifting their objections from politics to financial concerns and finally to security, that vast shadowland of contemporary life.

Death threats now have the potential to wreak havoc on sport. The failure to make political disgust the basis of England’s reluctance to play in Harare has come back to haunt the international sporting community. Then again: we send the 2008 Olympics to Beijing while turning our noses up at Zimbabwe.

Whether or not the ``Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe’’ turn out to be the mother and father of all impostors, shame will be carried around in cricket for years to come. Not, though, by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga.
The Daily Telegraph