Flower and Olonga defiantly spearhead spirit of rebellion

By Martin Johnson in Harare
While England continued to dither and dawdle in the city of the timeless Test (if they’d stopped shaving at the start of the great debate, they’d all look like W G Grace this morning), two senior Zimbabwean cricketers were, by way of contrast, issuing a statement from Harare of unparalleled political forcefulness, not to mention bravery.

There are any number of people in Zimbabwe who don’t quite share the government’s view that they are led by a kindly and benevolent gentleman, who likes doing nothing better in his spare time than helping old ladies across the road. However, for Andy Flower and Henry Olonga - on the morning of their country’s opening World Cup game - to describe their president as an oppressive dictator who condones rape, murder, beatings, torture, racism and suppression of opinion was really quite extraordinary.

We didn’t really expect Flower to be batting for very long Monday, and indeed he wasn’t, though the real surprise was that he left the field of his own volition (or to be more accurate, the umpire’s decision) rather than under armed arrest. Flower, the team captain until recently, and fast bowler Olonga were having their joint statement examined by the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, and I think we can take it that a copy might also have been sent to the presidential palace, which is next door to the Harare Sports Club.

What the consequences might be for these two players is anyone’s guess, but it is hugely damaging to Mugabe given the international spotlight on the World Cup, and Zimbabwe in particular. Heath Streak, the captain, said after the game that ``everyone is entitled to their own opinion’’, which was the opposite of the point being made by two of his players. ``We are aware,’’ said part of the statement, ``that many people have been unjustly imprisoned and tortured simply for expressing their opinions about what is happening in this country.’’

Streak and the other Zimbabwean players were apparently unaware that Flower and Olonga were taking this public stand until just before the start of the game, and none of the other home players joined those two in their on-the-field protest of wearing black armbands to symbolise their ``mourning for the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe’’.

However, as Streak’s farming father Dennis spent some time in prison not long ago, it is not hard to guess where his sympathies might lie, though going public in Zimbabwe, as Flower and Olonga pointed out, is not necessarily a guarantee of a long and healthy life. Whether through fear or apathy, it was bizarre to be in the press box when the statement landed and watch the local media react as though they’d just been informed that the luncheon interval had been rescheduled for 1.30.

Streak said that he was ``not sure’’ whether the two players would be disciplined by the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, though a fine or a ban from that organisation would be the least of their worries. Mugabe’s undercover police were at the ground, looking so undercover that the pavilion bar manager spotted them immediately and ordered his staff not to serve them. The spirit of rebellion was clearly catching.

Most people at the game were unaware of the statement and if England were watching the game on television in the expectation of a crowd riot, there wasn’t one. This was because there wasn’t a crowd, or at least not one worthy of the name, and the opposition party’s call for ``peaceful demonstration’’ failed to materialise.

In any event, spectators were too occupied being frisked at the entrances to demonstrate, and rarely has there been such heavy security at such a sparsely attended game. It was like calling in the National Guard, and issuing them with Kalashnikovs, for the University Match.

Namibia themselves had arrived the day before to be escorted from the airport by two motorbikes, a truckload of heavily armed militia, a helicopter, and - perhaps to reassure England that all would be well even if one of the guns went off by accident - an ambulance. However, the streets of Harare, for England’s information, might be dusty, crowded and chaotic but they are not especially dangerous. Unless, of course, you have the misfortune to fall down a pothole.
The Daily Telegraph