| Henry Olonga (above) and Andy Flower (top right) wear black armbands during Zimbabwe’s match against Namibia at the Harare Sports Ground. (Reuters)
Johannesburg, Feb. 10: Thirty-five years ago, Muhammad Ali refused to join US forces fighting in Vietnam, saying: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
It remains the biggest political statement in recent memory by any sportsperson.
Today, two Zimbabwean cricketers — Andy Flower and Henry Olonga — wore black armbands as they took the field in their World Cup tie against Namibia, “mourning the death of democracy” in their country.
In a statement released before the match, Flower — Zimbabwe’s most accomplished cricketer — and Olonga — the first black to play for the country — said: “We are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. We pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation.”
Zimbabwe has been torn by civil strife after President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country for over two decades, started what he called land redistribution by taking away the property of white farmers and giving it to landless blacks. Bloodshed and allegations of corruption have tainted the process.
With half of Zimbabwe’s 14 million people struggling under food shortages and the main opposition leader facing a possible death sentence if convicted of trying to kill Mugabe, some critics say playing cricket there would imply approval of his rule.
Western leaders have also accused him of rigging the 2002 election, in which he defeated Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change, now thrown into a treason trial.
England and Australia have come under pressure from their governments to boycott fixtures in Zimbabwe.
England, which was to decide today if it would play against Zimbabwe in capital Harare, seemed to be still hesitating, though an International Cricket Council (ICC) set deadline expired.
The ICC released a document saying England had given “formal notice” that it will boycott its match for security concerns, but England and Wales Cricket Board spokesman Andrew Walpole said the matter was still being discussed. “We have not said that we are refusing to go to Zimbabwe. We asked the ICC to move the match to a safe location outside Zimbabwe.”
India is also slated to play Zimbabwe in Harare. It does not share western concerns about Mugabe who is New Delhi’s old friend and fellow member of the Non-Aligned Movement. India may not entirely support the methods used by Mugabe, but it agrees with him that “inequitable distribution” of land is Zimbabwe’s main problem.
Flower and Olonga’s protest would hurt Mugabe more than threats by other teams not to play in Zimbabwe because until today national players had stayed clear of the political row. It also conquers racial barriers.
“We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed,” the duo said.
“We are aware that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans may even die in the coming months through a combination of starvation and poverty and AIDS.
“We have heard a torrent of racist hate speech directed at minority groups.”
Today’s game against Namibia began with the Harare Sports Club barely a fifth full. Mugabe, a great cricket fan and patron of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU), was not present.
ZCU Chairman Peter Chingoka said he was aware of the players’ statement. “We will make a (reaction) statement at an appropriate time,” he said.
For declining to go to Vietnam, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world title, prevented from travelling abroad and only got his licence back three years later.
At 26, Olonga has years of cricket ahead of him, which he has now put in jeopardy. Apart from the punishment he might face from the Zimbabwe board, the ICC, constantly stressing its non-political status, could intervene with a disrepute charge.
after over 200 one-day appearances and 63 tests in a 12-year career, Flower is near the end of his playing days and is not expected to turn out in a big event for Zimbabwe again.
At the end of his short innings (39) against Namibia, at a ground nestling right in the shadow of Mugabe’s presidential residence, the left-hander made a small gesture to the crowd as he walked back to the pavilion.
It could have been interpreted as a goodbye.