A POWER struggle that threatened to tear cricket apart in Zimbabwe this year — courting an unprecedented ban on the country by the International Cricket Council (ICC) — evokes horrific memories of the dispute of 15 years ago when deep cracks, serious mistrust and underlying agendas exploded into the public view for the first time.
What had previously existed only as murmurs of discontentment within cliques over contracts, team selection and managerial issues would blow up into a bitter feud of gigantic proportions in 2004 — the axing of young black player Stuart Matsikenyeri from the national team’s line-up only a convenient scapegoat for a time bomb that had been waiting to go off.
Bangladesh were touring early 2004 and after the first two ODIs in Bulawayo were abandoned without a ball being bowled due to rain, the five-match limited overs series moved to Harare, where the tourists beat the home side by three wickets in the third match to take a shock 1-0 lead.
An unusual result it was those days by the contrasting standards of both teams: Bangladesh, then the recognised minnows at the upper echelons of the game, and Zimbabwe, a dangerous underdog of world cricket at that time, well respected by opponents and opposing fans alike.
That Zimbabwe had easily defeated Bangladesh in all 10 previous ODI meetings between the two nations since 1997 was therefore fuel for conflict in an atmosphere already engulfed in tension.
Ozias Bvute, then an influential board member of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) later to become the association’s managing director, recalls how he was caught in the eye of the storm as chairman of an integration committee set up to strike racial balance in the game.
“I had a call one evening and (Takashinga Cricket Club official) Givemore Makoni and company were very upset because Zimbabwe was playing a series with Bangladesh and Stuart Matsikenyeri had been dropped from the team for supposedly costing the team the game,” Bvute says in an interview on a forthcoming book on the history of black cricket in Zimbabwe, co-authored by this writer.
“In protest, the non-white community wanted to boycott the next day saying that there was no way Matsikenyeri had been responsible for that loss. If anything I think he had 30 runs (he in fact scored 20), he had a run a ball so if he got a run-a-ball 30, why was he going to be the sacrificial lamb for the loss? It was not his problem. Someone else had to be dropped. Heath Streak was the captain at the time.
“So there was a threat and the threat was they (Makoni and crew) were going to dig up the pitch at the Harare Sports Club and no cricket would be played. I was called from my house at about seven or eight o’clock in the evening and they said ‘chairman, we have a problem. Tomorrow there’s going to be a strike and no one is going to be allowed to get onto the field of play’.
“So, as chairman, I went to ZC. Vince Hogg was MD. About seven or eight in the evening, I called Heath Streak and said ‘look, we have a political problem, just re-select your team’. He at that stage felt it was interference, but it wasn’t interference, there was a real issue and the issue was that the non-whites who made up the structures of cricket said they were going to dig up the pitch, and they meant it.
“You know, Makoni was younger, so they meant it — they were very, very upset. So in trying to balance, because if anything when I started I was trying to balance the equation, trying to keep these ones happy and pacify the others, letting it be a progressive affair, he (Streak) refused. Max (head of selectors Macsood Ebrahim) re-selected the team but Heath was very offended, he said ‘you are interfering, what do you know about cricket?’ And I said ‘but cricket isn’t only about you playing, it’s about people’s emotions, playing for their country’.”
As it happened, tempers cooled down a bit, and Matsikenyeri did not play in the fourth game, which Zimbabwe won by 14 runs to level the series.
Matsikenyeri returned for the last match and was dismissed for a duck, although Zimbabwe won the match by three wickets to clinch the series after all.
But the seed of animosity had already been sown, with a vicious row between the board and senior white players erupting in the aftermath of that series.
“It’s very political, so you balance it out and everybody is happy,” Bvute says, who left ZC in 2012.
“But he (Streak) felt he was a good player, he had the God-given right to decide who plays and it was his team, and the team was made up of brothers. There was the Flowers, the Strangs, the Rennies, the (cousins) Whittalls. It was a clique and less than 30 people made up that team and for Matsikenyeri to come in that team, they didn’t want him because the changing room was a very hostile place. Heath Streak re-selected the team, (but) they took offence and the next week they (15 senior white players) went on strike saying these are not goals, they are quotas, there is no fairness, blacks are being pushed into the team.
“At that stage, the relations degenerated because they were now being unreasonable and now they became a victim. Instead of dialogue, it got to the stage where they were no longer talking and they rebelled. Vince Hogg felt it was too much pressure, he resigned. I was asked to be acting MD because there was now a sensitive issue. We lost the sponsors, there was bad press, there were sanctions and even our own people, including yourself (this writer), were not supporting.
“They didn’t understand that what needed to happen was that as a country … it was in the early 2000s, the white community was migrating out of Zimbabwe because of land reform and number two, you cannot have a sport that is just played by 30 people. It’s not sustainable because if you look at it, there were five (sporting) provinces: five by 11 people, 55 people, 60 people, (so) your pool was from 65 people.
“A very small number of those were young people and undoubtedly what you can concede to, the white Rhodesians had sporting pedigree because they played … they went to privileged schools and were exposed to water polo, rugby, cricket, basketball, soccer.
Where your parents can afford for you to play you can develop and the only group of people who then developed in cricket were the whites because cricket was an expensive sport. Would you as a black person be able to leave home and play cricket all day? No, your parents wouldn’t allow it. Would you have money to even buy a bat? Because a bat was important. The idea was to bring as many people into this as possible and effectively wherever there is change, there’s conflict because you are changing the status quo. There was a lot of name-calling and people were just fighting, fighting and fighting.
“Ultimately, the objective was achieved and now it’s a cricket country and black Zimbabweans understand and love cricket. And how did that happen? Through the victimisation of Peter Chingoka and Ozias Bvute. But there was an idea and the idea was that people should play. For you to become a cricket writer, my efforts, it was my effort that enabled you to be a cricket writer.
“Through my revolution with my colleagues you got to know what cricket is and you got to write about it. Pommie (Supersport commentator and pundit Mpumelelo Mbangwa), I’m the one who said he must go on TV, he must be a commentator because you need black faces. Undoubtedly they’ve done well, haven’t they, but someone had to actually push for this to happen.”
l These are extracts from a chapter in the forthcoming book on the history of black cricket in Zimbabwe.