Episode 45: Andy Flower, inspiring cricketer – and protestor

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Andy Flower was one of the most talented cricketers of his generation. In 2003 he and his teammate Henry Olonga amazed and inspired the world when they played a cricket match in black armbands, in mourning for the death of democracy in their country, Zimbabwe. He gives a vivid and moving account of their protest as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Andy recalls the inception of the protest.  His friend Nigel Hough, a leading opponent of the Mugabe régime, had tried to persuade him to stage it at the opening ceremony of the World Cup at Newlands, Capetown, and to lead the entire squad in boycotting the tournament. Andy explains why he and Henry Olonga decided to limit the protest to themselves and discourage others from joining (including his brother Grant) and why they transferred it to the opening Zimbabwe match, against Namibia, in Harare. He and Henry Olonga took advice from David Coltart, another leading opponent of Mugabe, on the black armband gesture and the accompanying statement. He describes their determination to maintain the dignity of their gesture (and ensure that they were not prevented from taking the field in the black armbands) and to focus the statement away from politics onto the collapse of human rights in Zimbabwe. 1-7 minutes

In an especially powerful passage, Andy explains the events such as organized robberies, beatings, rapes and murders, which had become routine in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and barely reported even in the surviving independent newspaper. Just as sporting sanctions had sent a powerful message about apartheid South Africa, he and Henry were determined to use the World Cup to show that Zimbabwe was not a normal country. 8-11 minutes

They had known the likely consequences of their protest: their international careers would be over and it would not be safe for them to live in the country. Andy describes the preparations he made for he and his family (the youngest of his three children was only just born) to make a new life in England, where he had become  a county cricket for Essex. He was then in his mid thirties: he comments generously that Henry Olonga made a bigger sacrifice of his international careers as a seriously fast bowler in his mid twenties, and an iconic black cricketer. Henry faced direct death threats, and unlike himself, had no immediate right of entry into England. 11-16 minutes

Andy regrets that he was unable to add to the momentum he and Henry had created. Their gesture had broken the apathy in Zimbabwe over the routine abuses by the régime. However, it was hard to generate a successful continuing protest in a thinly populated state which the régime had learnt to repress with great efficiency. 16-19 minutes

He describes the aftermath of their protest in Zimbabwe cricket, and the problems faced by his young successor as wicketkeeper-batsman and captain, Tatendra Taibu (whom he had coached as a boy.) A man of integrity, Taibu inevitably clashed with the corrupt hierarchy of Zimbabwe cricket. With the collapse of the country’s domestic currency (it issued banknotes for 500 million trillion dollars) the foreign currency earnings from Zimbabwe cricket made it a valuable fiefdom for its controllers. 22-25 minutes

In spite of its small size and intense difficulties Zimbabwe has produced, and generally exported, many cricketers of great talent. Andy attributes this to its outdoor lifestyle, where school children are encouraged to play many different sports, and the strength of its first-class system at its inception in the 1990s. He laments the disappearance of dedicated administrators in Zimbabwe cricket and the virtual collapse of its domestic structure. For all that, Zimbabwe continues to produce talented young cricketers, and he cites Blessing Muzarabani, the pace bowler who helped secure the recent victory over Afghanistan in less than two days. 25-32 minutes

Andy has just returned to England after the Covid-induced termination of the Pakistan Super League. He conveys his enthusiasm for his role as chief coach of the Multan Sultans (whose owner cannot get enough leg-spinners) and extols the contribution of T20 to cricket in Pakistan and worldwide. He gives a name to watch from T20 and T10 cricket, a young hugely talented Afghan wicketkeeper-batsman, Ramanulla Gurbaz. 35-44 minutes

From personal experience, Andy describes the pressures of life inside a cricket Covid bubble, particularly for extrovert, gregarious cricketers. He has sympathy for the problems of the England management in limiting players’ exposure to bubble conditions. Bubbles are likely to continue for some months in world sport as Covid  slowly abates: Andy calls for all cricketers to show patience and resilience in making them work, and to be grateful for the opportunity they provide to continue their careers in professional sport. 47-51 minutes

The literary event of the year is imminent: the publication of Wisden Cricketers Almanack.  Peter and Richard invite listeners to submit their nominations for the Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year to obornehellercricket@outlook.com. They will present the results in advance of Wisden’s Please remember that players cannot appear twice in the Wisden Five, to avoid wasting a nomination!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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