Matt Pitt | 2:01pm gmt 02 Aug 2008
He was the hero Zimbabwe deserved, but not the hero they needed.
Zimbabwe. In cricketing terms in 2008, the word conjures up a whole host of negative connotations. In non-cricketing terms, it conjures up yet more. The recent election and subsequent spotlight on the country has created a crystal-clear global image - a country ravaged by political turmoil, inequality, corruption and greed; ruled by a man whose reckless abuse of power and chaotic leadership has led his country to destruction, Robert Mugabe. Yet while Zimbabwe's descent into four-million-per-cent inflation has been one that was started decades ago with Mugabe's ascension to power, the descent of Zimbabwe Cricket into absolute entropy has been a rapid one.
With their having reached the Super Six stage of the 2003 World Cup, one could be forgiven for thinking that Zimbabwean cricket was in good shape at the time. Nothing could be further than the truth. Teams were objecting to playing in Zimbabwe on political grounds, the team's Test status was in serious jeopardy, and the Heath Streak affair in 2004 had deprived the team of the majority of its most talented players. Yet amongst the turmoil, one incident provided a ray of hope. One positive to focus on, one light at the end of the tunnel.
On the 10th February 2003, the day of Zimbabwe's first World Cup match, two Zimbabwean players, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, released a statement to the media. This statement declared that they would be wearing black armbands during matches for the duration of the World Cup campaign, "to mourn the death of democracy in [their] beloved Zimbabwe". This gesture did not send shockwaves through the international community; it did not change the makeup of the world as we know it; superficially, it was nothing more than a slight change of armwear for two members of an eleven-man team. What it was, however, was an immeasurably brave stand against the tyrannical Mugabe; one that may not have slain the monster, or even made him rethink his policies, but one that let the world know that there were people in Zimbabwe who did not fear their supposed "leader", and gave the world hope that Zimbabwe might one day be free.
Some men aren't looking for anything logical like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Flower and Olonga's gesture resulted in severe pressure on them from the Zimbabwean government. Both men were hounded ceaselessly, threatened with treason charges, and Olonga was even forced into hiding for a spell, as the backlash from the Mugabe regime was felt. What powerful men fear most is losing their power, and many of them are not used to being stood up to. Following the World Cup, both men retired from international cricket to seek a future elsewhere - Flower continued his cricket career in England with Essex, along with a brief spell with South Australia, and now continues his work in cricket as England assistant coach, while Olonga found a future as an eloquent and respected commentator, whilst also pursuing a singing career. Having given up their careers and feared for their lives, both men have now found respite from their past; their past, however, will never be forgotten.
As a player, Olonga was a talented bowler - never destined for greatness, but hard-working and respected. His status as one of Zimbabwe's few black players at the time gave him a very relevant perspective on the situation, and without his contribution, the protest would have held nowhere near as much weight. The involvement that had the biggest cricketing impact, however, was undoubtedly that of Flower. No-one in their right mind would dispute that Flower was Zimbabwe's greatest ever cricketer - with a Test batting average of over 50, plus 151 catches behind the stumps and a wealth of captaincy experience behind him, he was the cornerstone of Zimbabwe's side, his career the pinnacle of decades of Zimbawean cricketing development. In a side struggling to compete in Test cricket, he flourished. His 540 runs in a two-Test series in India in 2000 has not been surpassed. There are those who argue that had he never kept wicket, he would have been held up as one of history's great batsmen on his retirement. Instead, his retirement was a sad occasion, forced on him among a myriad of complex and dangerous circumstances.
Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Flower's retirement did not, as it should have done, represent the graceful bowing out of a respected and truly great cricketer. What it did represent, however, was a sacrifice unheard of in modern sport. Being an international cricketer is a life sought after by many. It opens doors to great wealth, global success, widespread respect and a heck of a lot of free travel. Flower was willing to give up the life he had worked for, the life he had earned, in return for nothing but the opening of more doors. Doors to a new life for Zimbabwe, a life where its people did not live in fear of a crazed dictator, in a corrupt society where democracy was, to quote Flower and Olonga themselves, "dead".
What is more, the symbolism of Flower's sacrifice is clear. With Mugabe's anti-white policies in place, Flower's success in international cricket and his leadership of a predominantly white team was a beacon for the people, a sign that no matter what held them back, no matter the corruption that existed in the country, that black and white could coexist and thrive. Flower's protest was a sign that this beacon had gone out. That the situation had become so dire that something needed to be done. No longer could Flower sit back and watch the team that he had led for so long be torn apart by political bickering, by corruption in Zimbabwe Cricket, by factors having nothing to do with cricket. Someone had to stand up. It is painful to say, but had Henry Olonga stood up alone, the weight of the protest would not have been sufficient. Zimbabwe needed a recognisable face, a nationally respected face, to carry the torch. Flower gave up his career to be that man.
I am whatever Zimbabwe needs me to be.
I was fortunate enough to meet Andy Flower two years ago at a county one-day match. A thoroughly unremarkable game on a thoroughly unremarkable Hampshire day. Yet when I shook his hand, a chill ran down my spine. I would never meet a man like him again. A man who had taken on a tyrant and lived to tell the tale, a man who had turned the world's head with a sheet of prose and a strip of black fabric. While the oppression and death of the Zimbabwean people continues to ravage the country, while the world continues to turn the other cheek, while Zimbabwe cries out in need of inspiration, Flower endeavoured to give the people what they deserve. While the maniacal Robert Mugabe continues to play the role of the Joker better than Heath Ledger ever could, Flower remains more than just a hero to many, including myself. When the day comes that Zimbabwe is finally free, the role of Andy Flower will be as big as any.
He's not a hero...he's a silent champion, a captain of justice...Andy Flower was, is, and will always be, Zimbabwe's White Knight.