The death of cricket in Zimbabwe

May 17 2004 / New Statesman

A couple of years ago, on a visit to Harare, I met Ian Smith for afternoon tea at his home in one of the more affluent suburbs of the city. His house was detached, had four or five bedrooms and a large open-plan sitting room in which we sat by a window that looked out on to the well-ordered garden. In the kitchen, mostly out of sight, a black maid worked diligently. She was preparing old Smithie’s supper while the former leader of Rhodesia explained, in his unmistakable, still powerful voice, that “they had not even invented the wheel here when the first European settlers began to arrive”.

We could have been in Surrey, Kent or Sussex in a house on any one of the new model executive estates that were built in the early 1970s - the prejudices were certainly the same. And that, I guess, was the whole point. For here, architecturally, was a vision of England in Africa, a place that even the stranger could recognise and find familiar.

The white enclaves of Avondale and Borrowdale were a short taxi ride from Smith’s house. Here, barricaded behind high-security fencing and walls topped with razor wire, the last whites of Harare were struggling to defend their positions of privilege and to preserve their own receding vision of England in Africa.

Once crucial to this vision was sport and, in particular, cricket. Yet to visit the Harare Sports Club, the home of Test cricket in Zimbabwe and far from the townships where most Zimbabweans in the capital live, is to understand why the game has no future in this part of southern Africa.

Cricket in Zimbabwe is a white game, played by and for an ever-decreasing number of whites. There may be black players and, following the dispute that has led to the sacking of the 15 so-called rebel white players, ten of the present team are black. But very few, if any, black spectators attend one-day and Test matches.

As you travel around this blighted city, it is hard to find anyone at all who cares about cricket or even knows which international team is visiting and when. Football, in contrast, is hugely popular, as it is throughout most of Africa, and, unlike cricket, seems untainted by the old colonial associations.

An African friend of mine once told me that she became upset whenever she saw Indians playing cricket, not least because cricket, with its rituals and languor and its white clothing, was perhaps the most English of all sporting pastimes. The game reminded her too much of a past she would rather forget - a past of colonial subjugation.

I explained that cricket was no longer an English game or indeed an expression of English character, that its power base had long since moved from London to the Indian subcontinent and that the Indians, with their wrist and finger spinners, and their fabulous, fluent batting, had given a once-foreign game an entirely indigenous Indian idiom. But cricket for her would always be associated with a particular image of England, and of England overseas: proselytising, bullying, prescriptive, superior.

One hopes that the present Zimbabwe team, led by the admirable young wicket-keeper Tatenda Taibu, following the resignation of the rugged white farmer Heath Streak, will eventually emerge stronger from the present crisis. One hopes that this team can use cricket as a source of inspiration, unity and pride to the impoverished young people of Zimbabwe, as it once was to the people of the Caribbean.

In bitter truth, this will not happen. This inexperienced team, no more accomplished than an average minor-counties side, will be beaten hollow by Sri Lanka, Australia and England in the months ahead, in a series of matches that will demean the very essence of international cricket as competitive sport.

These humiliating cricketing defeats will serve as a metaphor for the wider defeat of Zimbabwe itself, a nation that has been turned into a vast prison and continues systematically to conspire against and murder its own people, black and white, but especially black.

So pity the people of Zimbabwe and curse all others who have the audacity to embark on cricket tours at such an unhappy time.