As was widely reported a couple of weeks ago, two Zimbabwean players, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga very bravely took the field in a World Cup cricket match wearing black arm bands, as a statement mourning the death of democracy in their country. In the next game, the Zimbabwean Cricket Board attempted to prevent the players from playing. Andy Flower, who is one of the best batsmen in the world, eventually did play in the match (and subsequent matches) because his teammates en masse refused to play unless he was selected. Flower has played in all subsequent matches. Olonga has been less lucky. Olonga is a decent player, but not in the class of Flower, and the Zimbabwean selectors were able to get away with implying that his later non-selection had to do with form rather than the political statement he had made.
Since then, Andy Flower has stated that he knows he is not going to play for Zimbabwe again after this tournament. (He could have added "as long as Mugabe is in power" but he left that unstated). This is a shame, as it means that a great player will be lost to international cricket. Personally, though, he will be fine, due to the fact that he also plays cricket as an "overseas player" for English county Essex. English counties are permitted two non-English players. These players are normally international stars of the game, and are normally very well paid. Flower is easily good enough to qualify for one of these spots, and although he may not play international cricket again, he can make a comfortable living playing county cricket in England. He may have to live in exile from his own country, and while this is unfortunate, there are worse fates.
Henry Olonga, on the other hand, is not quite good enough to earn a regular "overseas player" spot in county cricket. He is certainly as good as many of the English players playing county cricket, however, so in order for him to play here, someone would have to make a special effort. Which is why it was heartening to read this in the Times this morning. (The Times' website is link-unfriendly, unfortunately).
THE very real fears that Henry Olonga’s ostracism by the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) will culminate in the end of his international career have led to an extraordinary offer from a Suffolk businessman to sponsor him through county cricket this season.
Zimbabwe are scheduled to tour England from May to July but, if Olonga is omitted from the party as a punishment for his courageous political stand with Andy Flower, the fast bowler could yet benefit from the huge worldwide sympathy for his plight.
After reading in The Times last Friday that Olonga suspects his international future is over, Lawrence Mallinson contacted the newspaper to reveal that he had spoken to Essex to see if they could take him on as a “sponsored” overseas player.
“I think it is important that Henry should not be abandoned after the World Cup is over,” Mallinson said, “and feel that my business can at least afford to give him a well-deserved foot up. Getting him over here might also help him make contacts that could lead on to something else.”
A member of the Zimbabwe coaching staff declared what has been widely known since Olonga was dropped after making his joint statement — that on cricketing grounds, he should still be in the side.
Mallinson is prepared to pay up to £30,000 to sponsor Olonga. “I’m not a huge philanthropist, but I was moved by what I read in The Times,” he said. “I know Henry isn’t your world-class overseas player, but what he did was very brave and I want to ensure he isn’t forgotten about.”
This is quite pleasing, and hopefully something can be sorted out to allow Olonga to play in England (although no doubt the British immigration service can find some way to screw things up). It would be a real shame for Olonga to have to suffer too much for his bravery and decency.
Of course, the best thing of all that could happen would be for someone less vile than Mr Mugabe to take power in Zimbabwe. That way, Zimbabwe could once again put its best possible cricket team on the field. And, vastly more importantly, the repression of the people of that beautiful country by Mugabe's thugs could cease.