Thursday, 26 August 2010

An interview with Henry Olonga

Former Zimbabwean cricket legend Henry Olonga recently visited Liverpool to speak at the Slavery Remembrance Day Festival taking place at the excellent Merseyside Maritime Museum. I was lucky enough to have a long chat with Olonga who revealed himself as a hugely polite, knowlegable and principled man still full of regret and anger about what has happened to his beloved Zimbabwe. An edited version of this interview appeared in the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post but I've included the full length version here.

In a sporting world seemingly more concerned with money and fame, talking to an athlete who not only has a political conscience but also the will and conviction to risk his life for his beliefs is a rarity indeed. To meet one as humble, modest and inspiring as Henry Olonga only increases the impression you’ve met a pretty special person.

In 2003 Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga made a decision that was to change both his life and career in ways that he is still finds difficult to comprehend. Prompted by his captain Andy Flower’s disgust at the torture of opposition MP Job Sikhala, the two internationals decided to make a stand against the Zimbabwean government at that year’s World Cup by donning black armbands and releasing an incredible statement ‘mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe’.

“We were warned, “says Olonga, remembering that fateful day. “People did sit down and explain the gravity of what we were doing but I still had no idea what was going to happen.”
What happened was that Olonga was immediately dropped from the team and expelled by his home club. Then things got worse.

“It was not until after the event and when my father received a message telling him to get me out of Zimbabwe that I even considered the fact that I might have to leave the country or that my life might even be at risk,” he says.

Zimbabwe’s notorious leader Robert Mugabe was far from pleased with the cricketers’ actions and within days Olonga became an exile charged with treason, travelling first to South Africa and then to England where seven years later he remains in limbo, married to his Australian wife Tara but still deeming it unsafe to travel home.

It’s hard not to contrast Olonga’s fortunes with those of Flower, who after retiring from international cricket continued to play first class cricket with Essex and now successfully coaches the England team. Olonga who has reportedly not always got on with his former captain agrees his treatment has been harsh.

“You’d have to ask Andy if he had similar threats to me. He’s never told me but what you’ve got to understand is that Andy is a legend in Zimbabwe whereas I was just an average player really. I think most people would agree though that I’ve borne the brunt of the outcry.”

Throughout his problems Olonga has always relied on his strong religious faith to provide answers and guidance and he now regularly speaks to Christian groups about his beliefs. I ask him if his actions against Mugabe’s regime were prompted by his religion or a sense of political responsibility and receive a typically eloquent reply.

“For me it is impossible to separate the two. My faith gave me the conscience to make the decision to do what I did. My faith made me feel the political situation needed to be challenged and my faith gave me the moral values to make those judgements.”

It’s a passionate validation of his actions but it’s impossible not to wonder how Olonga feels about his life being defined by his single moment of protest. He readily admits that he was no more than an average international cricketer (he took 68 test wickets) and that much of his fame revolves around the black armband affair.

“As far as it defining my life, you’re probably right and I’m very honest about that,” he muses. “I was never going to be famous or well known for my bowling. Maybe once or twice in my career I hit the heights but not many so I admit that the incident may be why I’m known now and the reason I get media work and give lectures.
“Bear in mind though we had no idea how the world was going to respond or if some people thought we were degrading the World Cup. Yes we knew what we were doing was pretty heavy but we had no idea which way it was going or that I wouldn’t play cricket again.”

Mention of cricket brings us back to the sad story of the Zimbabwean team which for the last five years has lost its Test status and much of the positive ground it gained during Olonga’s playing career. Olonga himself was a supporter of the boycott of tours to his home country and a vocal opponent against Zimbabwe’s cricketing authorities.

“I made a decision a while ago that I wasn’t going to talk about this – I was going to sit back and not do any interviews so not many people have heard my views for a while. For the most part I was opposed to Zimbabwe becoming integrated again because the situation was still so bad.

Inflation was through the roof and the same problems remained but now with the power sharing agreement (between Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai) a degree of stability has returned to the country and there are good people in charge of health and education.”

Olonga is clearly positive about his country’s future and hopes the positivity can extend to the nations cricketers.
“I think the time is right for integration. Would we win every game? No, certainly not but players like Brendan Taylor are only 24 and have played over a hundred One Day Internationals so the experience is there. They need to be at the vanguard of the new Zimbabwe.”

Olonga is in a unique position to cast judgement on England’s current fine form and puts much of it down to his old team mate and captain.

“I don’t know what the winning formula is but I suspect Andy Flower has installed a certain belief. Andy is a tough guy and he won’t wrap his players in cotton wool like past coaches have. If you’re not performing Andy will tell you straight. 90% of success as a coach in any sport is winning respect and he’s certainly done that.

‘“It’s like at the Oscars – Andy is the director but there’re lots of people behind the scenes. The physios and the coaches are like the gaffers or the actors. They all help but Andy is in charge and deserves credit.”

Olonga is full of praise for the current England players. Graham Swann is “a revelation” if “he can stay out of jail” while Strauss is “unrecognisable from the player dropped three years ago. Captaincy obviously does him good.”

As for Olonga’s own career he is proud of certain performances mentioning the six wickets he took against England as a highlight and although he enjoys still playing for the Lashings International XI this year he has struggled with injury.

“The spirit is willing but the body is weak!” he laughs. “I got carried away at the start of the season and tweaked my achilles but it’s just fun for me now. I’ve no interest in coaching.”

Instead Olonga is breaking out into all sorts of other areas. He has already recorded an album of his own music and as his impressive website displays he also enjoys painting and photography.

“I’m at the mercy of whether people enjoy the things I do. If they like my music or my art that’s the direction I will go in. Hopefully my new book will do well otherwise I might have to play cricket again!”

Cricket’s loss could well be literature’s gain.

Blood, Sweat and Treason – Henry Olonga, My Story is available now in all good bookshops.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The C Word

There is a word in the English language that retains a power to shock that no other word can. As run-of-the-mill insults have been dulled by overuse, this one particular word is as powerful, and as shocking, as ever.

That word, of course, is 'cheat' - at least as far as the cricket pitch is concerned. To openly suggest that someone is a cheat on a cricket pitch is anathema, and is a good as fighting talk. It is, to reference another old cliche, simply not cricket.

In most sports it's possible to cheat, but in lower-league cricket it's childishly simple - and it can be used to turn cricket matches into an absolute train wreck. Such games rarely feature specialist umpires, and are umpired by members of whichever team is batting in either innings.

As such, the umpires are often required to adjudicate on whether to give their own team members out in cases of run outs, catches and LBWs. Inevitably the benefit of the doubt, residing with the batsman at the best of times, is weighted even more heavily in favour of the batting team.

The danger of cricket like this is when a team uses this potential advantage to totally ruin a game, giving their own batsmen not out again and again to the point where a line has been crossed and that team is simply cheating.

I have never seen a game develop in this manner before, but we had received warning that a certain team in the league was planning to cheat in a return fixture.

Following a fractious game, where the said team were on the receiving end of an absolutely hiding - something I always suspected to have been the real issue all along - I got talking to another member of their club at another game.

He warned me that this team were planning to 'give [us] nothing' in the return fixture. In essence, they were planning to cheat by not giving any decisions in our favour.

I decided that this was probably a result of this team being sore from such a massive bumming, and wrote it off as a bit of post-match anger. So we turned up at the away leg of this fixture yesterday willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

We batted first, having been put into bat, scored 200-odd in a little over 45 overs and declared. I gave two decisions myself, a caught behind and an LBW. When we bowled we realised we'd been had.

The opposition did not give one decision out of ten that were extremely good shouts, and probably another five that could easily have been given. A clear nick through to the keeper and a catch off the face of the bat off my bowling were the two worst 'not out' decisions I've ever seen.

In the latter instance, the batsman prodded forward and hit the ball straight into the waiting hands of silly mid off. That it could not be out was not only absurd, it was literally inconceivable, according to various laws of physics.

For two other LBW shouts, the batsman could have walked. Another was off my bowling. "Why was that not out?" I asked in astonishment.

"I just thought it wasn't out," came the reply, looking down. He couldn't think of a reason it wasn't out, so he didn't even try to give one.

During a drinks break, I heard one of the opposition discussing the situation, with the words: "We can't give these [Sefton Park] 25 points." In the end they blocked out for a draw, managing a pathetic 100-8 off over 40 overs, chasing 210.

I've never called any opposition team cheats before, but I'd have no hesitation in doing so in this instance. Neither would anyone else who played in it.

In retrospect, we should have walked off. When you're playing cricket and the cards are stacked that highly against you, what's the point?

Indeed, what's the point in playing any sport when you know one team is going to cheat? It's not even a case of the opposition trying to cheat the referee or umpire. The opposition IS the referee or umpire - and they're cheating.

Pre-meditated cheating too. The umpires who gave these decisions had either been told not to give any decisions, or they had decided, unilaterally, that they were going to cheat. Given our advance warning, it's obvious which one.

What can be done? The only sanction is to return the favour the next time we play this team, but what's the point of that? The game may as well be called off.

And who would that benefit? Not us, as we delivered a lesson in cricket on both occasions, only denied a second crushing win by their cheating.

So, we can only go into the next game as if it's any other game and hope for the best. No doubt the team in question will feel they have won some sort of victory by cheating us out of win, but the not only diminished themselves, they diminished cricket and everything it should stand for in the process.

On the way out they charged us £55 for teas - sandwiches and crisps - a full £15 more than teas at Sefton, which is a sit-down affair with all manner of cooked foods. Again, we knew we were being mugged, but could do little about it.

The previous week, this team had played our 4th team and been heard plotting to take all the food from the buffet so there would be none remaining for the Sefton team. One of the WAGs, helping out with preparing the teas, had to ask them to put some of the food back.

Cheating is obviously a way of life at this club.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Swann subterranean cat screwdriver rescue: Great cricket excuses

Not much to say about this, beyond the obviously-brilliant headline, which comes from Graemme Swann's defence against drink-driving charges.

Swanny says that he was forced into his car to venture to a supermarket in order to fetch tools to lever up the floorboards in his house to rescue his trapped cat.

Whichever way you look at it, that's a hell of a story; made even better by a quote from the police who attended Swann because he was driving a Porsche Cayenne (reason enough in my book) in an area known for burglaries.

Here's the BBC's report of what arresting officer PC Voce saw that fateful night:

"As he approached us, from the manner of driving I thought we had a burglar or a stolen vehicle.

"He was waving the screwdrivers, saying, 'It's not for what you think, the screwdrivers aren't for what you think'.

"He stated the cat was trapped under floorboards and he continually asked us to contact (his wife Sarah) and a call was made to a sergeant to attend the address and make sure the cat was okay.

"He had had the builders in and the cat was trapped under the floorboards but he couldn't find the screwdrivers in the house so he went to Asda."

'Slurred speech'

After arresting the cricketer and escorting him to the police car, Pc Voice said she had to wind down the driver's side window because he smelled so strongly of alcohol.

So there we have it. Bleary-eyed, slurred-of-speech and waving a bag of screwdrivers around, Swann repeatedly asked the police to turn up at his house and ensure his cat was OK. That all sounds perfectly reasonable to us.

The BBC has certainly had some fun over it, with two effort at a funny headline: ''Drink-driving' Swann blames cat' and 'Drink-drive charge Swann in 'cat rescue attempt''. We prefer the latter.

All joking aside, whatever Swann may or may not have done, he seems anything but the stereotype of the spoilt, arrogant, stupid sportsman on frequent display in this day and age.

In his 'cat rescue attempt', he does, however, join the pantheon of cricketers wielding unlikely excuses. I've rounded up a couple, which may be familiar but are nonetheless still amusing:

• Derek Pringle was said to have once damaged his back while writing a letter so badly that he was forced out of Test contention. In fact, the chair he was sitting on at the time collapsed, which is pretty much every bit as funny.

Chris Lewis was late for a Test against Pakistan in 1996, claiming he had a puncture. Ray Illingworth simply went to inspect his car, which showed no signs of a punctured tyre.

• While apologising for biting a cricket ball in full view of cameras during a T20 match against Australia, Shahid Afridi also claimed that all international teams tamper with cricket balls, implying that to do so was acceptable, and it was only his chosen method of ball-tampering that was beyond the pale.

• Michael Clarke claimed that the Aussies did not win the 2009 Ashes because of a lack of playing facilities. Well, he implied it. And it's always nice to remind ourselves of what happened in that series.

• Mike Atherton claimed that what looked suspiciously like a V sign directed towards Philo Wallace in 1999 was in fact nothing more than an indication of the whereabouts of the dressing room.

• Matthew Maynard forced himself out of a few games on the 1993 Windies tour by picking up a sea urchin.

All good, but none come close to subterranean cat screwdriver rescue.