Wish I had been wiser: Andy Flower

ANDY Flower, arguably Zimbabwe’s greatest cricketer of all time, feels he had a personal responsibility to manage the bitter resistance to the racial quotas that tore the national team apart around the turn of the millennium—contributing to the local game’s rapid fall from grace.

By Enock Muchinjo

Flower’s commitment to racial integration within the national team and Zimbabwean cricket was itself never in doubt. In the late 1990s, the legendary wicketkeeper-batsman had moved from Old Georgians to join the black club Old Winstonians, present-day Takashinga Cricket Club, because “as white cricketers I thought we needed to show, through our actions rather than words, that we were serious about developing black involvement in our sport.”

However, because of his superstar status within the Zimbabwe team, Flower concedes, in retrospect, that he should have played a leading role in defusing the storm that ensued when more and more black youngsters—township-groomed unlike previously capped players of colour—began to gain selection into the national team around the early 2000s.

“Looking back, I wish I had been wiser in the way I responded,” says Flower, writing the foreword for Tatenda Taibu’s autobiography, Keeper of Faith.

“I think that (former South Africa captain) Graeme Smith and the people around him handled a similar situation in South Africa with more wisdom and with a better understanding of the bigger picture. It must have been difficult for youngsters such as Tatenda and his friends Hamilton Masakadza, Stuart Matsikenyeri and Vusi Sibanda, but I think they handled themselves extremely well.”

Flower tries to explain that the fight against the board-driven quota system in team selection was not a particularly racist stand, delving into the chief reasons why there was so much heated opposition to it.

“Tatenda’s arrival into the national squad came at a difficult time,” writes Flower.

“For years we had been paid a pittance as international cricketers, and it was only through threatening strike action during the tour of England in 2000 that we managed to start earning some reasonable money. This dispute coincided with an even more controversial issue centred around racial quotas in the national side. The recommended quota system from the ZCU [Zimbabwe Cricket Union] was introduced for good reason: promoting black participation and providing opportunities that had previously been denied young black talent. We were already a small cricketing nation constantly fighting to justify our international status and, as established players, we believed this quota system would serve to weaken us further. We had only just started to receive a fair amount of money from our board, and places in the team were highly sought after. In truth, a number of the players really resented some of the young black cricketers being promoted.”

The former Zimbabwe talisman had been first introduced to a very young Taibu by his father Bill Flower, a foresighted development coach and philanthropist who envisaged an even brighter future for the game in Zimbabwe with the increased participation of the country’s black majority population.

Taibu, then a pupil at Highfield’s Chipembere Primary School, was at that time part of a select squad coached by the elder Flower, who even took it upon himself to pick up the youngsters from home and dropping them off after cricket commitments.

“In the 1990s cricket in Zimbabwe was changing, and no one knew that better than my father, Bill,” writes Andy Flower.

“The generation of young black cricketers emerging from the Zimbabwe Cricket Union’s development programme in the high-density areas of the major cities were the future, and along with other coaches such as Peter Sharples (late legendary Queensdale Primary School and Churchill coach), Bill gave everything of himself to help these boys achieve their dreams in the game. Highfield, a township in the capital of Harare, soon proved to be a particular hotbed of talent, and in time would produce a number of the nation’s leading cricketers. None of them would prove more influential than Tatenda Taibu.”

Flower then took Taibu under his wing when he joined Winstonians around 1998, a relationship that grew over the years as the protégé became an adult himself.

“The young cricketers I encountered there were highly talented, technically excellent and all dreamt of a future for themselves in the game,” says Flower.

“I hoped I could enhance some of that with some of my own expertise and guidance. Soon enough Tatenda was following in my footsteps, turning his attentions to wicketkeeping in order to supplement his batting. He was a complete natural: quick over the ground, quick hands, good balance, excellent hand-eye coordination. He had all the components to be world-class with the gloves. By March 2000, he had joined the national squad as my wicketkeeping understudy in the West Indies. He was sixteen years old.”

That Taibu would become international captain at the age of 20 does not surprise Flower at all, and indeed it was senior players like him and Guy Whittall who pushed the diminutive wicketkeeper into leadership roles at a young age.

“Tatenda was always a role model, on and off the field,” remarks Flower.

“This was evident even at his junior school where he seemed to naturally evolve into leadership positions. He was a gutsy individual; always confident, always smart. When he first arrived in the dressing room, and because I recognised his potential, I often tried to challenge him to think both about his game and the team dynamics. His opinion was valued from a young age. Hopefully this stood him in good stead when he became captain in the most difficult of circumstances at the age of 20. He was still trying to organise his game as an international cricketer, and the problems that had engulfed Zimbabwe had not disappeared. It’s possible to captain successfully from a young age, take Graeme Smith at 21 as an example—but he would have had good people around to guide him. With Peter Chingoka and Ozias Bvute at the helm in Zimbabwean cricket, the same could not be said for Tatenda. That showed when he made his own stand against the board a little over a year later.

“There is no doubt they would have employed their classic divide and rule tactics with him, offering a sweetened personal deal at the expense of others, and expecting silence or support as a result. Tatenda was better than that and stuck to his values and principles. As with Henry Olonga and myself at the 2003 World Cup, his own personal fight was never going to bring about regime change, and it would have been naïve to think otherwise, but he made a point of standing up for his values. Speaking out in Zimbabwe was not necessarily the route to future safety or financial prosperity, yet Tatenda wavered not in the face of severe pressure from above.”

51-year-old Flower, a successful former England coach, wraps up by expressing how his heart bleeds for the game and his homeland.

“The mismanagement at the top of both cricket and government is heartbreaking to witness,” he writes. “It seems so entirely unnecessary. Zimbabwe is a resource-rich country with a strong foundation in good education. The parallel between the country’s story and that of its cricket is obvious, and tragic. Countless outstanding people have invested heartache, blood, sweat and tears into the game in our country, only to see its assets stripped and wasted. Is it retrievable? I suppose in time, anything’s achievable.”