To some, sport is simply about life, death

KEEMO Paul (pictured) is probably one of the greatest villainous foreign figures in the eyes of Zimbabwean sports lovers, viewed in the same light perhaps as somebody like our former national football team coach Ben Koufie, the late Ghanaian accused by superstitious folk of once cursing the Warriors.

Enock Muchinjo

But some of you would be asking: who on earth is Keemo Paul?

To those in the know, this is the chap who, as a super-gifted teenager four years ago, broke our hearts by cruelly denying Zimbabwe a place in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Under-19 Cricket World Cup, through one of the most unsportsmanlike moments in the history of the sport.

With Zimbabwe needing just three runs from the last over to win the thrilling pool match, and one wicket in hand, the African team — one of the best sides to be assembled at that level in this country in recent times — had an equal chance of proceeding to the last eight of what had been a thoroughly enjoyable Youth World Cup in Bangladesh.

Paul, though, had other ideas. With the first ball of the over, the sprightly West Indies Under-19 fast bowler controversially dismissed Zimbabwe’s last-man, Richard Ngarava, through what is called “Mankad”, known as such in recognition of the Indian bowler — Vinoo Mankad — who first performed the unthinkable act many years ago against an Australian batsman.

I will not attempt to go into another explanation of what Mankad is like. But I will equate it to something not so remotely different in a sport well known to most of us, football, something that gets to the heart of the spirit of the game and the pursuit of victory.

Here is the example: the game is deadlocked a minute from full-time, with a place in a quarter-final at stake. An opposition player goes to the ground, injured, and you sportingly kick the ball out to allow medical staff to attend to the injured player. But instead of kicking or throwing the ball back to the opposition for them to retain their position, you attack and score the winning goal.

Perfectly nothing wrong with that according to the laws of the game, just as Paul’s actions to dump Zimbabwe out of the Under-19 Cricket World Cup in 2016.
But how terribly unethical was that, or “absolutely disgraceful”, to quote New Zealand great Stephen Fleming’s description of Paul’s behaviour against Zimbabwe Under-19s.

Two years after sending the young Zimbabweans tumbling out of the Under-19 World Cup, Paul — now with the Windies senior side — came to this country for the 2019 World Cup qualification tournament played here in 2018. Paul later narrated the hostility towards him from the bumper crowds in Harare and Bulawayo, which remembered his name from 2016 and hadn’t forgotten what he did.

Paul, speaking last year, said he “locked himself away and cried” after the backlash he received in the aftermath of his very unsportsmanlike deed against Zimbabwe Under-19s, and although insisting he felt right about his decision at that time for years ago, he said he would probably not do it again in his career.

The West Indian pacer was not the only person to shed tears over that incident. Steve Mangongo, Zimbabwe’s coach in that Under-19 World Cup, told reporters in Bangladesh that his young players had sobbed pitifully in the dressing room after the fateful match.

But with the passage of time, and then a context that has emerged in recent weeks, I have been thinking that I might have a slight idea what could have drove Paul to act in the manner he did four years ago.

Paul, who is now 22 and now centrally contracted by the West Indies, comes from Guyana, one of South America’s poorest countries, with an average per capita annual income of around US$4 000.

Just like many Afro-Caribbean Guyanese, Paul had a very difficult upbringing at home.

Guyana is off the Caribbean coast, English-speaking, so very much part of West Indian culture. I was there in 2010 for the Twenty20 World Cup. It is a great place to visit, British colonial architecture and all. But the daily struggles of the beautiful people are there to see even for a first-time visitor.

These are the circumstances in which young Keemo was raised, so for him his God-given sporting talents mean the world. What was going through his mind as he ran in to bowl that final over against Zimbabwe Under-19s four years ago is now probably clearer. To him, winning and losing on the cricket field, at that moment four years ago, probably had a deeper and different meaning from an aristocratic boy from Eton College playing for England.

It therefore does not surprise me that with world sport slowly returning to the calendar, Paul is one of three West Indies players that have declined selection for the tour of England next month, citing coronavirus fears in the midst of the pandemic.

Paul, in an emotional letter to the West Indies Cricket Board last week, said he was hugely concerned he might get the disease and then spread it to his extended family back home. At 22, an age many young men are still dependents trying to discover themselves in a big world, Paul is already his enlarged family’s sole breadwinner.

His is a concern West Indies board officials say they totally understand. If he was to be infected, and die, Paul would leave an irreplaceable gap for his relatives in his impoverished country, where cricket is one of the few means out of poverty.

Quite interestingly, one of the three players to turn down inclusion on the trip to England is Shimron Hetmyer. Like Paul, Hetmyer is Guyanese. The attacking batsman was West Indies’ captain at the 2016 Under-19 World Cup, and he stood by his fellow countryman when Paul came under severe attack worldwide for his conduct against Zimbabwe.

Hetmyer was also here in Zimbabwe for the World Cup qualifiers in 2018 with Windies seniors and oh dear, did he not nearly knock out poor little me with a venomous six that rocketed over extra-cover, right into the part of the Old Hararians crowd where I sat.

So for the two young Guyanese and their West Indies teammate, Trinidadian Darren Bravo, a tour to England — to earn matches fees and all the other benefits of a long overseas tour — does not fit into the bigger picture of the quest for a longer career, probably a longer life in these times of the real threat of Covid-19.

In making that tough decision, for somebody like Paul in particular, you might probably begin to understand his mindset four years ago in Bangladesh when he chose the unorthodox way of winning a very important game for his country.

And it paid off, handsomely, because West Indies went on to win that Under-19 World Cup.Keemo Mandela Angus Paul will be hoping this latest decision also pays off and perhaps in future gain some fame for actions of a more heroic nature, just like the global icon whose name is part of his.

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