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Talking Point: Flower and Olonga’s defiant gesture shines bright

Black bands of 2003 will go down as most powerful political statements from sportspersons

Gulf News

‘The night has gone and with the morning

Come rays of hope that lead us on

So we will strive to give our children

A brighter day where they belong

Now flies the flag our nation’s glory

We will live with pride, inside our hearts

As we all stand to build our nation

This is our land, our Zimbabwe.’

— Henry Olonga’s song ‘Our Zimbabwe’

Remember the writer of the above lyrics?

Sitting thousands of miles away from Harare, this former Zimbabwe cricketer, along with his more illustrious peer Andy Flower must be feeling vindicated at the winds of change sweeping Zimbabwe. The African country had been in the eye of the storm as Robert Mugabe, the strongman who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, had to finally give in after the military intervention and wishes of it’s people.

The show of black bands by the two ahead of a ICC World Cup match in 2003, right at Harare, could easily qualify as one of the most courageous political statements ever made by sportspersons. Flower and Olonga shook up the world of cricket when they sported black arm bands in a match against Kenya to mourn the ‘death of democracy’ under the Mugabe regime.

The peace and quiet at the venue was shattered when on the eve of the match, the media were handed a statement from the two cricketers that they would be wearing armbands for the cause. Flower, arguably the greatest batsman produced by the country, came into bat with the band visible on TV while Olonga — the first black player to make it to the national team of Zimbabwe — was spotted with the band at the players’ balcony.

The impact the duo could create — with the star white cricketer of the country and the black incumbent playing the comrades in arms — was possibly at par with the famous ‘black salute’ of US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos or even Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam as he ‘Ain’t Got No Quarrel With Them Vietcong.’

The courage of conviction was enormous for both knew the consequences of such defiance under the intolerant, one-party rule of the African nation — it was a foregone conclusion that their cricket careers would be over while there could be enormous risk to their personal lives.

“For one second in time we brought the world’s attention to the serious problems that had befallen the country I loved, grew up in, played for and represented at the highest level in my chosen sport and I think that counts for something,” he many years later in an interview to CNN. History tells you that it the last match they ever played for Zimbabwe while both had to leave the country — Flower moving to make a living in County cricket in England while Olonga went into hiding before settling down in England.

For the senior of Flower brothers, a rehabilitation of sorts was relatively easier given his exalted status as a cricketer — as he went onto become the director of England team and is now one of the most sought-after names as coaches in world cricket. Olonga, on the other hand, was more of a journeyman cricketer who showed enormous courage to wade through the uncertain times and is now a commentator with a flair for singing and lives in Australia.

The Facebook wall of Olonga has been flooded with congratulatory messages since early this week, with many compatriots saying they had been playing ‘Our Zimbabwe’, a musical video produced by the cricketer over and over again. Some wants him to return to Zimbabwe again as they see the ‘rays of hope’ with the new regime.

A salute to the genteel sport’s two rebels with a cause!