The meeting that killed cricket in Zimbabwe took place on 11 March 2004. Three of the selectors were present – Max Ebrahim, Ali Shah and the former Australia batsman Geoff Marsh – as well as captain Heath Streak and Vince Hogg, managing director of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union.

That morning the team to play Bangladesh in a one-day international had been signed off by Justice Ahmed Ebrahim, ZCU vice chairman and father of selector Max Ebrahim, and announced to the press. There were nine white players in the team and two blacks, Tatenda Taibu and Dion Ebrahim (no relation to Ahmed and Max). The instigator of the meeting, Ozias Bvute, had not arrived. Bvute is an increasingly powerful figure: then he was ZCU director of integration and now he is about to be appointed managing director of the rebranded Zimbabwe Cricket, on a reported salary of £7,500 a month. Hogg called him up on speaker phone. ‘Gentlemen, this side you have selected is unacceptable in this day and age in Zimbabwe,’ Bvute told the meeting. ‘You will reselect the side.

The selectors argued that the team had been chosen on merit. ‘Gentlemen you will reselect that side,’ Bvute persisted. He explained that he would be failing in his duty to his ‘constituents’ if he did not increase the number of black players in the team. His constituents soon arrived at the meeting along with Bvute himself. They turned out to be from the Mashonaland Cricket Association, the most influential cricketing province in the country. They warned that if the selectors did not choose five black players, the pitch at the Harare Sports Club would be invaded and the wicket dug up.

Max Ebrahim, in a spirit of compromise, suggested that fast bowler Andy Blignaut and batsman Mark Vermeulen, both of whom had been recently injured, should be dropped. A double match fee would be paid to Vermeulen for him to sit out the game. Streak and coach Marsh were incensed at the suggestion. Lovemore Banda, the team’s media manager, then addressed the meeting. He said that black people were unhappy that the wider political changes in Zimbabwe were not reflected in team selection. ‘Look at the farms. We got independence in 1980 and in 2000 people grew tired of waiting and took the land. If there is no change in cricket then people will give up waiting and take cricket as well.’

At half past eight, after four-and-a-half hours, the meeting was adjourned. Justice Ebrahim arrived half an hour later to talk to Bvute and the Mashonaland delegation. They agreed to let the game against Bangladesh go ahead uninterrupted. But, in return, Justice Ebrahim assured them that more black players would be picked from now on. The following day, Streak scored 45 and took four wickets as Zimbabwe won by 14 runs. But angry that no disciplinary action was taken against Mashonaland, he wrote to Vince Hogg warning that unless there was major change he would resign the captaincy. He later phoned Hogg to say that he would retire from all cricket if his demands for a change in the selection panel and the removal of Bvute from a position of influence were not met. The ZCU accepted his resignation and appointed Taibu, then a 20-year-old, in his place. Streak and 14 other white players responded by refusing to play for Zimbabwe. It was the beginning of the end for them.

One afternoon towards the end of November I visited the Harare Sports Club where the groundsman, Robin Brown, was preparing the pitch for the first one-day international against England. ‘I don’t think there’ll be much for the bowlers but I’d like to have seen Harmison banging it down,’ he said, pointing at the white, dry wicket. Steve Harmison had refused to represent England in Zimbabwe for moral reasons.

Later, back in his office, Brown and I discussed the turbulent past nine months in Zimbabwe cricket. ‘I think the rebels shot themselves in the foot,’ he said of the absent white players. ‘They put 10 points on the table and got nine and a half of what they wanted. The only thing ZCU wouldn’t do is get rid of Max Ebrahim or Ozias Bvute.’

I was struck by the contrasting pulls on Brown as a white man working for an organisation that some say is prejudiced against whites. He and Vince Hogg were accused by Bvute of sabotaging the Harare wicket when the reshaped Zimbabwe side, led by Taibu, were bowled out for a record low of 35 by Sri Lanka in a one-day international on 25 April 2004. ‘It didn’t worry me in the least,’ Brown said. ‘If it came from people who knew about cricket, I’d have challenged them. We prepared the best wicket we could. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the way Chaminda Vaas swung the ball.’

Yet when he turned to cricket development he sounded like an evangelist for the brave new world of Zimbabwe Cricket. ‘It’s mind-boggling. We sit there as whites in our little world and the rebels sit there and say nothing’s happening to cricket in the country, but when you actually go out to the townships and have a look, the progress that’s being made is amazing. I think the consensus of opinion is that if Streak doesn’t want to come back it’s not a problem. Bring on England, we want to see them play, we want to see how we’re doing and then next year the guys will develop because there’s some exciting talent.’

This is not a view you would hear in the calm of Harare’s Botanical Gardens, where the remaining rebel white cricketers assembled for their last meeting following their failure to convince an International Cricket Council inquiry that ZC was guilty of racism against them. ‘There’s never been a strike like this in sporting history,’ said their lawyer Chris Venturas, who is a close friend of all-rounder Grant Flower. ‘These guys have come short, but generations after will benefit from this fight because the world of cricket is a more transparent place.’

Listening to the players’ grievances one wonders why, rather than racism, they did not sue ZC for incompetence. Their decision not to choose a black advocate, despite being recommended one, was foolish. Not that the judges themselves emerged with much credit: having promised the players they would be able to give their evidence in camera , they failed to enforce the ruling when Bvute and Max Ebrahim refused to leave the courtroom. The inquiry eventually collapsed without the players giving their verbal evidence.

The leading rebels – Grant Flower, Stuart Carlisle, Craig Wishart, Trevor Gripper, Neil Ferreira and Streak – felt let down. ‘Regardless of whether there are goals or quotas,’ Carlisle told me, ‘when you’ve got documents saying a crowd at a cricket match should be 75 per cent black by the year 2005 and there should be seven non-whites in the team, that’s discrimination.’

The following morning, at the Harare Sports Club, the press were waiting for David Morgan, the England and Wales Cricket Board chairman, who was trying to save his team’s tour after 13 British journalists were refused entry to Zimbabwe. The young Zimbabwe players were having catching practice, led by their West Indian coach, Phil Simmons, who replaced Geoff Marsh when his contract expired. The previous day I had spoken to Simmons about the journalists’ accreditation issue. ‘I agree that the media can help to spread cricket around the world,’ he said, warily. ‘But I can’t get involved in this. This started long before I came here.’

This, of course, was an oblique reference to politics, so I asked about the wider situation in Zimbabwe. He sighed and then laughed knowingly. ‘I’ve not had any problems but things are hard for the people. I know there’s a big issue about the country and so on, but there are a lot of countries where there are human rights issues.’

The photographers waited idly for a bemused Morgan to emerge from a meeting. The feeling was that the tour would be cancelled. I spotted Robin Brown walking across the outfield and asked whether his wicket had been carefully prepared in vain. ‘No, they’re coming,’ he said, smiling. ‘I’ve just had a call. The information ministry is saying they made an administrative error.’

That evening in his spacious hotel suite Morgan was full of praise for his colleagues John Carr and Mike Soper, for various ZC officials and the British Embassy staff. ‘I believe my decision to instruct the team to stay in Johannesburg overnight was critical.’

He evidently believed he had won a great victory. England, he said, would have lost the respect of the other cricket nations if they had not tried to reach a compromise. He used his favourite phrases – ‘closure’ and ‘acceptable non-compliance’ – before concluding that it ‘does much more good for international cricket to be here than to stay away’.

If only it were that simple. In Bulawayo, the relaxed second city in the south, I met John Tlou, one of the demonstrators at Zimbabwe’s match with Holland during the 2003 World Cup. They held banners proclaiming ‘War for peace and justice, not land’, and sang songs in their native Ndbele with the chorus ‘Where is Olonga?’ Henry Olonga had been dropped after he and Andy Flower wore black armbands to protest against the ‘death of democracy’ in Zimbabwe.

‘The cameras were facing us across the pitch so the police tried to arrest us,’ Tlou continued. ‘We dispersed but they started to arrest us one by one.’

At least 29 protesters were taken to the cells. ‘We were there for four days. There were 23 of us in one small cell, the women were in a different one. I am 49 and was the oldest so they said I was the ringleader. They threatened to beat me. In the end, they beat the youngsters instead. The police wouldn’t release us until the cricket was over. The court cases are still going on. It’s all part of their plan to inconvenience us.’

Before arriving in the country, I called Ozias Bvute from England. Bvute has risen from nowhere to become second in command to ZC chairman Peter Chingoka. I did not expect him to talk to me but he was surprisingly open. ‘It’s no secret that there’s hostility between our two governments, but sport has nothing to do with politics,’ he told me. ‘Of late the discussion has been whether England should tour on moral grounds. But if you say, as some are continually claiming, that people are disadvantaged in Zimbabwe, surely you should come out and uplift the people with five days of marvellous cricket? When Live Aid went out for the people of Ethiopia, it was to help the disadvantaged.’

Waiting at the airport for England to arrive from Johannesburg, David Morgan called me over to his table. He and Mike Soper were eating cheese toasties. ‘Tell me, Tom, do you think things are getting better or worse in Zimbabwe?’

I told him that things were much worse. ‘But,’ he protested, ‘the last time I was here people were queuing for many hours to buy petrol and bread. Today, there are no queues.’

Later, when I mentioned Morgan’s comments to David Coltart, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change’s shadow justice minister, he was contemptuous. ‘Morgan has no idea what is going on. There used to be price controls so everyone could afford fuel and bread, but there was not enough to go around. So there were queues. Now there are no price controls and no queues. And people can’t afford what’s on the shelves.’

The England players eventually arrived looking as if they were about to do a tour of duty in Falluja. They stared solemnly ahead as police outriders led them to their five-star hotel, Meikles, in central Harare. The next day, both the Times and Guardian made much of some graffiti on Robert Mugabe Way saying ‘England Go Home, Shame on England’. But most Zimbabweans remained either unaware of or unbothered by the tour. The political nuances did not worry them. If sport is escapism, they are more interested in football, at home and abroad.

On the morning of the first game I heard a familiar voice in the breakfast room. ‘I’d like a cheese omelette and a rooibos tea.’ It was the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew. He was tired – and late. He was angry that England were in Zimbabwe but also frustrated at how hard it was to explain to people back home the complicated situation. ‘The fact that Gary in Sheffield says “pull the boys out” without knowing anything about it doesn’t really help,’ he said. We talked about the cricket for a bit before he said: ‘But the cricket doesn’t matter, does it? It’s all downhill from now on.’

There was a meagre crowd of about 100 at the Harare Sports Club. But it was a sunny day, the pitch looked pristine and, after all the delays, it was a relief to be watching cricket. The England fielders huddled together as the Zimbabwe openers walked out to polite applause. The series that few people, and certainly not the England players, wanted to take place had begun. Zimbabwe made a slow start and were 45 for one after 10 overs. The crowd grew and by the time Tatenda Taibu came in at 80 for four there must have been more than 3,000 in the ground, making a lot of noise. About 70 per cent were black – so that was one ‘quota’ fulfilled. But some of the white Zimbabweans were supporting England in protest at what they see as the politicisation of their team. The evidence of emerging black talent was there right in front of us as 19-year-old Elton Chigumbura hit a powerful half-century. In the end, Zimbabwe were all out for 194. England won comfortably, establishing a pattern for the series.

A few days later, justice Ebrahim greeted me warmly at the Harare club. Black and-white photographs stared down from the walls, showing faces of young white men. He led me to a secluded table and looked at me expectantly. ‘There are two sides to every story,’ he said.

Ahmed Ebrahim, an ethnic Indian, is short, wiry and scrupulously polite. He was until recently a High Court judge. Dressed in a blazer and club tie, he recalled the nine years he spent in London as a young man. After the Lancaster House Agreement of 1980 that opened the way for black majority rule in Zimbabwe, the British invited talented young civil servants to London for special training. Ebrahim was one of them. ‘There was nothing I liked more in those days than sitting down with a cup of coffee and reading the English papers,’ he said. ‘But now the English press is not what it was. When it comes to cricket they print lies.’

In a high-pitched but authoritative voice, he said that, in 2000, 20 years after independence, only five of the 29 senior administrators at the ZCU were black. At independence there were as many as 200,000 whites in the country; in 2000, when the farm invasions began, there were 70,000; today, there are as few as 25,000, many of them elderly. ‘I and a minority of other administrators recognised that if left unchecked it would only be a matter of time before cricket died in this country. But when a choice had to be made between a black and a white player, the white player always got the nod.’

The white players held the board to ransom, he continued. In 2000, for instance, when Zimbabwe toured the West Indies, he claims that ‘the players decided they didn’t want the coach Dave Houghton any longer so they forced him out’.

The allegation was later backed up by Ali Shah, who was tour manager at the time. ‘It was the tail wagging the dog,’ he said. ‘The players always had to have their way. Davie wanted to drop Alistair Campbell and pick Craig Wishart, but the royal family of Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Campbell and [Guy] Whittall wouldn’t stand for that.’

Houghton now coaches Derbyshire.

Ebrahim is considered something of an enigma by the MDC. As a judge he was resolutely independent. He ruled against the government’s land-reform programme. But, as one insider told me, as a cricket administrator he ‘provides a perfect foil for the more radical elements of ZC. And when he complains that Zimbabwe had crushing defeats before – losing to England by an innings and 209 runs at Lords in 2000 and by an innings and 175 to Australia last year – he ignores the reality that all teams have bad days. Zimbabwe might not have been a strong team, even with Streak, the Flower brothers and Murray Goodwin (who quit the team in 2000, to concentrate on playing for Western Australia and Sussex). But they were tough and competitive. You could not say the same of Taibu’s young side.

The England players began to relax after a few days in Harare, but the tour management never did the same. Andy Walpole, the squad’s harassed media manager, protected captain Michael Vaughan from difficult questions and my request to talk to coach Duncan Fletcher, who was born in the old Rhodesia, was rejected ‘due to the sensitive nature of the tour’. Fletcher is a Zimbabwean who once captained his country. What does he think about cricket in the country of his birth? What does he think about England’s tour? No one knows.

The day after England won the second one-day international by 161 runs, the tour moved on to Bulawayo. I arranged to meet Heath Streak on his ranch, an hour to the north. When we last met, at his flat in Birmingham (he was playing for Warwickshire), he said he missed the space of his home in Zimbabwe. Now, it was not hard to see why. On every side stretched mile upon mile of acacia trees, red earth, scrubland and endless sky. As I approached the homestead, an impala leapt gracefully in front of the car and round a bend I came upon a herd of zebra.

Later, when Streak gave me a tour of the farm – which has been reduced by two thirds under the land-reform programme to 4,000 hectares – we came across wildebeest, kudu and eland. Out here cricket seems a distant game. ‘People like Bvute say the door is open to come back but there’s still a lot of turmoil at Zimbabwe Cricket,’ Streak said. ‘The behaviour of Bvute, and Max Ebrahim, goes unchecked and they haven’t been made accountable for what they’ve done.’

Perhaps if Peter Chingoka had agreed to meet him, things would have been different. Streak said his letter to Hogg in which he first threatened to resign was born of frustration ‘that I couldn’t have an audience with Chingoka. I felt he should have made the time to see me. But Vince Hogg told me several times that Peter thought it wasn’t necessary.’ Streak, like most of the rebels, believes money is at the root of ZC’s mismanagement. He points to the £50,000 honorarium paid to Chingoka in 2003 – a huge sum in Zimbabwe terms. And the ZCU’s decision to send the entire board to Australia for the tour last year was a sign of how wasteful the organisation could be. ‘They spend nearly $150,000 on a jolly to Australia when back here you’ve got clubs collapsing. Queens [in Bulawayo] couldn’t play a fixture the other day because they had only one bat.’

But what of Streak’s own interest in money? I was shown emails between his agent, Ray Warner, and the ZCU human resources manager, Wilfred Mukondiwa, that reveal Streak was seeking a substantial pay increase to return to play for Zimbabwe. In one email, sent on 6 October 2004, Warner reminded Mukondiwa of Streak’s contract at Warwickshire. ‘The package is worth comfortably in excess of six figures, for what is effectively six months’ work. If the ZCU are serious about Heath returning to play international cricket in the future any offer must be equal to or preferably above what Heath will be earning in England.’

Streak denied that he would have come back without the issues of accountability being sorted out. But the size of his demands and the timing – in the middle of the ICC inquiry – were ill-advised.

I asked Streak why the black and white players used different buses while on tour in Australia. He said it was simply a ‘cultural thing’. ‘The white players would come to breakfast early, the black players would walk in three or four minutes before we were due to leave. The first bus would fill up, then the black guys would come out with their toast in their mouths and get in the other bus.’

But, according to Ali Shah, there was a racial problem. ‘I got on the white bus and asked one of the players why there were no blacks on board. He replied, “Because they stink”. Even in the dressing room you’d have whites on one side and blacks on the other.’

Heath Streak is certainly not a racist. But the question that has to be asked is whether as captain he should have done more to unify the team and remove the segregation.

In Bulawayo, England’s superiority made for tedious cricket. When they easily won the fourth and final match, everyone, it seems, was relieved the tour was over. I then called Geoff Marsh at home in Perth. Neither the ICC nor any journalists had attempted to speak to him since he left Zimbabwe for good in September. ‘I was coach of Zimbabwe for three years,’ he said. ‘I never get asked by the ICC for my version of events. Why not?’

He is ‘depressed’ by what has happened to the game in Zimbabwe. After the white players left he fought on with the youngsters until the end of his contract, but, he said, it was an impossible task. ‘You just couldn’t do it. It’s the same thing for Phil Simmons now. He hasn’t got a chance. You know, we won two games against West Indies little more than a year ago. The grounds at Bulawayo and Harare were full, we had black and whites off their seats. And then we had a very good tour of Australia in 2003-04.’

Yet by the time the squad returned from Australia, everything had changed. ‘One meeting and that was it. All the good work was thrown away.’

Marsh believes that it will take at least 10 years to create a decent Zimbabwe side. ‘The shame is that Tinashe Panyangara and Elton Chigumbura were both in the frame to play the next Test series. With Blignaut, [Doug] Hondo, Streak and [Travis] Friend that would have been a powerful attack.’

Throughout this tortured affair there was always ammunition for the different camps – arrogant white players, a corrupt cricket board and a morally bankrupt world governing body. Now the clubs in Zimbabwe have started to revolt against the power of the ZCU and their costly rebranding. Teams from Mashonaland are threatening to pull out of all ZC competitions.

This month, weakened Zimbabwe once more begin Test cricket, against Bangladesh and then South Africa. Can cricket ever thrive again in this blighted country?

‘The whole thing boils down to this,’ said Marsh. ‘Does world cricket want the Zimbabwe issue sorted? If it does, it can be easily sorted out. You’ve got to get the best players on the field. If you can do it, you can be competitive. Without your best players, especially in a country as impoverished and weak as Zimbabwe, you are doomed.’

In reality, sporting normality is not possible while Robert Mugabe remains in power. In the meantime, the infrastructure of his country collapses, his opponents are imprisoned without trial and millions of people cannot even afford a loaf of bread. What place has cricket in such a land?

This piece appeared in Observer Sport Monthly on 9 January 2005

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