By Perry Munzwembiri
Cricket in Zimbabwe has always been political, more so after independence, as Robert Mugabe sought to use it as a lever to preserve relations with the hesitant white community in the country.
In 1991, when Zimbabwe hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), then British, Australian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, John Major, Bob Hawke, and Nawaz Shariff played a charity cricket match against Prince Edward school, featuring a host of other local and international cricketing greats.
In the days following this historic cricket game held before the start of the 1991 Commonwealth summit, Major and Mugabe exchanged letters, the Zimbabwean leader declaring: “May I thank you for contributing, in quite a substantial manner, to the ease and friendliness that characterised our debates and discussions. Everyone I talked to during and after our meeting said they were highly impressed by your exceedingly friendly and accessible manner.”
Of course, Mugabe would later quit the Commonwealth, as relations with Britain soured.
Until he was ousted in 2017, Mugabe remained the patron of Zimbabwe Cricket – although playing no active role. Never mind that despite his patronage, and official residence being just a couple of metres away from Harare Sports Club – the home of cricket in Zimbabwe since the first cricket match played there in 1910 – Mugabe rarely visited to watch the national team now called the Chevrons play. [Chevrons – a name local cricket administrators had to quickly come up with when Zimbabwe was invited to play a franchise T20 competition in South Africa sometime around 2009-10.]
His absence at cricket games however did not mean that he not much cared for cricket. In the early years of his premiership, Mugabe famously assured Zimbabweans, black and white, that: “Cricket civilises people. I want everyone in Zimbabwe to play cricket. I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”
In the years that followed, the fortunes of Zimbabwean cricket mirrored the political and economic zeitgeist in the country. A number of talented cricketers – mostly white – left the country, with a number of them settling in England, and going on to represent the English. Graeme Hick, a Prince Edward School alumni, notably left Zimbabwe and went on to play 65 Tests and 120 one-day internationals for England; and until recently was still scoring runs for the county team, Worcestershire, even in his 40s.
Strained relationship with the British
Perhaps more curiously were the departures of Andy Flower and Duncan Fletcher. Fletcher, another Prince Edward alumni, is interestingly credited with devising Zimbabwe’s old car number plate system. He reasoned: “To help the police identify hit-and-run drivers, I decided on six digits followed by a letter, excluding I and O. If the driver who had been hit only remembered the first two or three digits and the letter, and the colour of the car, the police could narrow it down.” His contribution runs contrary to this strained relationship.
Flower and Fletcher have gone on to prove themselves near magicians, in their respective tenures as England head coaches, guiding English cricket to some of its storied glory days in recent memory.
Predictably, as the rift between Munhumutapa Building and Whitehall – the street in London stretching from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament and also the site of the main British government offices – under Mugabe’s reign widened, so too did the fallout between Zimbabwe Cricket and the England and Wales Cricket Board, one of the world’s most influential cricket governing bodies.
During the 2003 Cricket World Cup, co-hosted by Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya, England boycotted their group match with Zimbabwe in Harare after having requested, to no avail, that the match be moved instead to South Africa. England insisted that the political environment in Zimbabwe at the time was not safe for them. This resulted in Zimbabwe famously proceeding to the Super-6 knockout stage of that World Cup.
In 2009, Zimbabwe withdrew from the T20 World Cup hosted in England, when it became apparent that the British government was not going to issue Visas to the Zimbabwean players. Britain had led calls to suspend Zimbabwe from international cricket since the widely criticised presidential run-off elections in 2008, in which Mugabe retained power unopposed.
The business of cricket
Inevitably, the financial side of the game did not go unscathed as all this was happening. Sponsors left in droves, and the deteriorating quality of cricket played by Zimbabwe also did not help the situation. The appetite for the top cricketing nations to tour Zimbabwe waned, depriving Zimbabwe Cricket much needed income from TV rights earned in hosting some of the top touring nations.
In between official International Cricket Council (ICC) events and visits by India, Zimbabwe Cricket’s only other opportunity to make money, like most cricket countries, is when Australia or England tour. Because the English still have political reasons for not being able to visit Zimbabwe, however, Australia is Zimbabwe’s only other cash cow, with South Africa mostly being a break-even tour. When Zimbabwe hosts the rest of the other cricketing nations, it is most likely haemorrhaging money.
It is in this context that the recent series win over Bangladesh, the first in some nine years, is important.
Good quality cricket enhances Zimbabwe's appeal to other top cricketing countries, and the hope is that Zimbabwe will feature more prominently on the ICC's Future Tours Programme - a schedule of international cricket tours which structure the programme of cricket for ICC`s full members. Zimbabwe Cricket’s coffers desperately need this.
The sport is in an interesting period, attempting to move on first from its past tainted by the country’s scorched-earth politics that have often cast Zimbabwe as a pariah. This is no easy task, however, as only as recently as 2019, the ICC Board unanimously decided that Zimbabwe Cricket was in breach of its constitution, and that the actions of the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) in suspending the board constituted government interference in Zimbabwe Cricket’s affairs.
Resultantly, Zimbabwe was suspended from the ICC, ICC funding to Zimbabwe Cricket frozen, and representative teams from Zimbabwe barred from participation in ICC events for a while. Though the suspension was eventually lifted, this shows just how difficult it is for the local game to escape the clutches of the politics of the land still.
The local economy is still teetering. However, there is reason to believe that the fortunes of the game and the economy can be divorced. At least to a certain degree. There is a new head coach and management, who at the face of it, appear to know what they are doing. Following a string of good performances, Zimbabwe’s two cricket grounds are seeing near full capacity once more. Again, prima facie, the current administrators, seem to have the best interests of the sport at heart.
What makes it so costly to host a cricket tour?
Weirdly, winning cricket games, and having other countries agree to tour Zimbabwe does not necessarily mean improved financial health, as former Zimbabwe captain, and administrator Alistair Campbell explained below to ESPN cricinfo in 2020.
“If Zimbabwe hosts a touring country, Zimbabwe Cricket pays for the hotel, the buses, the security, the facilities. Additionally, the top cricket countries send people beforehand to check the facilities out. The hotel needs to be five-star, it needs facilities. They’ll need specific balls for the warm-ups. One Kookaburra ball is about US$150, and you need about 50 for practice. So, when Zimbabwe plays with the big boys, the costs escalate.”
“Then there’s television. The broadcaster might want a 12-camera or 16-camera production. Production costs around US$30,000-40,000 a day. That’s for a bog-standard production. So, for a Test match for instance, just for television that’s about $200,000 at least.”
“Then Zimbabwe has to sell the TV rights [for more than that]. And even then, not many people take it. They’ll take the content and say, ‘If we get any money from advertising revenue, we’ll share it with you, unless you play against India’”.
Unless Zimbabwe has a thriving and large enough domestic market, which as the latest census numbers prove, is just not there, hosting cricket matches implies losses. That’s just the state of play.
For now, playing good quality cricket and going toe-to-toe with some of the bigger cricketing nations is a good start. But as has happened ever so often, the game seems to be shackled to the stuttering domestic politics and economics. Escaping this stranglehold will likely place the game in good stead, as it seeks to regain its long-lost lustre. This will not be an easy road.
Perry writes on Zimbabwe and its business and economic landscape at https://opinionista.substack.com/. You can email him with your comments or feedback at: email@example.com