The Cricket World Cup 2003 is being held in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. There has been tremendous controversy surrounding England's match against Zimbabwe to be played in Harare, Zimbabwe on 14th February 2003. At the centre of the controversy is the regime of Robert Mugabe and the human rights abuses that it has been accused of. The Labour Government under Tony Blair believes that playing in Zimbabwe will legitimize Mugabe's rule. Another issue has been the safety of the England cricketers who have apparently received death threats.
However, if the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) does indeed pull out of the Harare match, it may face a fine of 10 million pounds, which it can ill afford. The International Cricket Council (ICC), which is cricket's governing body has said that Zimbabwe is safe for the England to play in and refuses to move the match to South Africa, as demanded by England. To complicate matters, South Africa and Zimbabwe have both threatened that they will not tour England in 2003 if England does go ahead with its boycott. The England captain Nasser Hussain has tried to distance himself from the controversy by saying that the matter should not be left to individual cricketers to decide, but that the ECB and the ICC should resolve it amongst themselves.
In the midst of this drama, Zimbabwe played its first match against Namibia on February 10th, 2003. Before the start of the match, Zimbabwe's two most well known players Henry Olonga and Andy Flower released a press statement. The statement is given below and is a critique of the Mugabe regime and mourns the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. It is an act of enormous courage since Mugabe is the chief patron of the Zimbabwe Cricket Association. Many believe that this statement will ensure the end of Olonga and Flower's career. Flower, arguably Zimbabwe's greatest ever batsman, at the age of 34, is nearing the end of his career. But for Olonga, this act of defiance is even more creditworthy given that he is one the few coloured players on the Zimbabwean team and at 26 has many years of international cricket left in him. I have included the entire text of the statement that they released, as a tribute to their courageous stand:
Issued 9.30 a.m. 10 February 2003, at the start of Zimbabwe's opening World Cup match against Namibia.
It is a great honour for us to take the field today to play for Zimbabwe in the World Cup. We feel privileged and proud to have been able to represent our country. We are however deeply distressed about what is taking place in Zimbabwe in the midst of the World Cup and do not feel that we can take the field without indicating our feelings in a dignified manner and in keeping with the spirit of cricket.
We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed. We are aware that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans may even die in the coming months through a combination of starvation, poverty and AIDS. We are aware that many people have been unjustly imprisoned and tortured simply for expressing their opinions about what is happening in the country. We have heard a torrent of racist hate speech directed at minority groups. We are aware that thousands of Zimbabweans are routinely denied their right to freedom of expression. We are aware that people have been murdered, raped, beaten and had their homes destroyed because of their beliefs and that many of those responsible have not been prosecuted. We are also aware that many patriotic Zimbabweans oppose us even playing in the World Cup because of what is happening.
It is impossible to ignore what is happening in Zimbabwe. Although we are just professional cricketers, we do have a conscience and feelings. We believe that if we remain silent that will be taken as a sign that either we do not care or we condone what is happening in Zimbabwe. We believe that it is important to stand up for what is right.
We have struggled to think of an action that would be appropriate and that would not demean the game we love so much. We have decided that we should act alone without other members of the team being involved because our decision is deeply personal and we did not want to use our senior status to unfairly influence more junior members of the squad. We would like to stress that we greatly respect the ICC and are grateful for all the hard work it has done in bringing the World Cup to Zimbabwe.
In all the circumstances we have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe. In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so we pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our Nation.
Andrew Flower – Henry Olonga