Former fast bowler Henry Olonga fled Zimbabwe sixteen years ago under the cover of a World Cup. A decision to wear a black armband during the 2003 World Cup, to protest then-president Robert Mugabe’s government policies in Zimbabwe, resulted in him having to flee, never to return home again.
“Dead, jailed, I don’t know, Mugabe’s henchmen were definitely after me,” Olonga says in a Skype interview from Adelaide in Australia, where he now lives with his family.
On Friday, Mugabe died at the age of 95, having lost power in a military coup in 2017. Olonga says he takes no pleasure in it.
“He could have woven into the fabric of his story a demonstration of kindness, peace, prosperity for all, gentleness, co-operation with critics, wealth for all, but instead chose to do none of those things,” says Olonga.
“My greatest sadness is that Mugabe could have been one of Africa’s greatest statesmen, so awe-inspiring was his command of the English language and so great was his story, but he lacked the desire for true reconciliation like Nelson Mandela,” he says.
Olonga and captain Andy Flower wore black armbands during the 2003 World Cup to protest the Mugabe government’s grabbing of land belonging to white citizens, and leaving a trail of human rights abuses in its wake.
The reprisal was immediate. Political leaders condemned the protest, Olonga was branded a traitor by his club side, his girlfriend broke up with him on email, and he was sent anonymous death threats. But he remains thankful to the countless strangers who helped at the time.
“A Zimbabwe secret service officer called up my father and tipped him off that Mugabe’s men were after me. A stranger got me plane tickets to the UK. I was then provided lodging in England for free by the owner of a cricket club. I am thankful to all of those random strangers who responded to my situation,” says Olonga.
“I’m in touch with my family back there, but to be honest, Zimbabwe is like a distant memory. My ties with the country have been cut,” says the former fast bowler, best remembered here for engineering a stunning victory against India at the 1999 World Cup.
How the armband protest happened
Olonga was the first black player to enter the national squad. The Mugabe government even instituted a ‘soft quota’ for black players following reports that Olonga was being sidelined by the white players in the side. But the political situation in 2003 stirred Olonga.
“Look, cricket was not as kind to me as it was to others. It did not make me rich, like Sachin Tendulkar. So, when I stood in the field with that black armband, it all seemed to make sense. Everything that had happened in my career and my life till that point seemed to have led to that moment,” says Olonga
The idea for the protest came from Flower. The duo had decided to wear the armbands at Zimbabwe’s first match of the tournament in Harare. Having agreed to participate, Olonga says he watched the English film ‘Gladiator’ a few times the day before the match.
“I thought, in my naivete, that there could be a problem or two, but that I could still continue playing cricket. I seriously thought our actions could bring about a change in Zimbabwe.
“I thought it wouldn’t be long before the world took notice of the atrocities the Mugabe government was committing, and I think there were many in Zimbabwe who thought this way in the early 2000s. How wrong we were!” he says.
Olonga admits his life could have been very different had he not answered Flower’s call. He could have been remembered as one of the poster boys of Zimbabwe cricket’s golden generation, with 126 wickets in Tests and ODIs. But he has no regrets about taking a stand.
“I like to think of myself as a deep thinker, someone who likes to see the bigger picture. I have always taken an interest in things like how leaders treat their subjects,” he says.
“We all have our giants to slay,” he adds, after a moment’s thought.
Sixteen years later, Olonga says the world is yet to wake up to the “death of democracy” in Zimbabwe. The decline of Zimbabwe cricket is only a symptom of the wider malaise that has a firmer grip on the country, he says.
The collapse of Zimbabwe cricket and Olongas in India
Olonga says he was as shocked as the rest of the world when the Zimbabwe team was recently banned from ICC events due to “governmental interference” in the country’s cricket administration.
“I guess it was just meant to be,” he says.
Olonga says with the departure of Flower, Neil Johnson and Murray Goodwin, the team suddenly lacked a middle order after the 2003 World Cup. Then 15 white players were suspended from the team in 2004 and there was no coming back from that, he says.
Since living in exile, Olonga has returned to his first passion: singing. A recent appearance on an Australian reality show earned him a new set of fans, including his children, “Things are nice in Adelaide,” he says.
And does he ever see someone taking a stand like him in Indian cricket?
“You need to be morally upright to do such a thing. (Anil) Kumble and (Rahul) Dravid always looked like they would do the right thing,” he says.