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Henry Olonga Exclusive: It’s a disgrace to the ICC that African cricket is dying

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A paintbrush, a microphone, a camera, a pen, and most importantly, the Bible—these are the things with which Henry Olonga likes to keep himself occupied these days, apart from his family which is the core of his happiness.

Remembered mostly for his raw pace and dreadlocked hairstyle, Olonga, by his own admission, is a terribly underachieved cricketer. Some of his spells like his 4/41 against India in a group game of the 1998 Coca-Cola Champions Trophy in Sharjah and his miraculous effort of three Indian wickets in the penultimate over to hand Zimbabwe a seemingly impossible victory in Leicester at the 1999 World Cup are perfect advertisements of the brand of cricket Zimbabwe’s golden generation played, but most others, unfortunately, have faded into the horizon.

It is, however, Henry Olonga, the braveheart we remember more than his on-field exploits. He received death threats, was forced to flee his country, and was branded as a ‘traitor’—all because he, a sportsperson with a very ordinary record, showed the courage to bemoan the “death of democracy” in Zimbabwe by protesting against the country’s president, revered in Africa as an anti-colonial hero for decades, Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical regime. The stakes were much higher for the-then twenty-six-year-old Olonga than for Andy Flower, who was in the twilight of his career, when the two staged their black armband protest in the game against Namibia during the 2003 World Cup. He has documented the build-up to this protest and its aftermath in detail in his autobiography, “Blood, Sweat and Treason.”

In his own words, Olonga never wanted to be remembered as a revolutionary hero, but at the same time, it pains him to see that the country for which he risked his life and liberty views him as a renegade, even today. “It is my Christian faith which gives me sustenance during such times of crisis”, he says.

Currently, a successful opera singer based out of Adelaide, whose rendition of Anthony Warlow’s ‘This is the Moment’ during the Blind Auditions for the Voice Australia won over the judges and went viral, Olonga uses music and his inspirational talks to propagate his message and the values he espouses.

At a time when Zimbabwean cricket is at its lowest ebb owing to the team’s suspension by the ICC, Olonga fears that African cricket would starve to death if the game’s governing body fails to look after the African teams and protect their interests. In this candid chat with cricfit.com correspondent Ritam Basu from his Adelaide residence, the former fast bowler recounts how a blockbuster historical movie inspired him the night before the black armband protest, vents his dissatisfaction with the ICC for its inability to spread the game, and explains how corruption and greed among the top brass of Zimbabwe are piling misery on the common people.

Q: Henry Olonga is a former cricketer, a political activist, a singer, a painter, and a photographer. You’ve dabbled in such diverse roles. How do you want to be remembered by your posterity?

Olonga: Oh wow! It will be nice to be remembered as someone who was brave enough to try different things. It would be nice if my kids understood that it’s important to be bold in trying to live your life. My whole life principle has been to give my full effort in anything that I put my hands on, if not be the best at it.

Q: You’ve admitted in several of your interviews that you could’ve performed a lot better as a cricketer. Now that you’ve established yourself as a successful opera singer, do you still have regrets with regard to your cricket career?

Olonga: (Sighs) Um…look, I certainly could’ve done a lot of things better in my life; [I] don’t think there’s anyone who does everything perfectly. There are some people who do, and they end up being multi-millionaires and the best in their respective fields like Roger Federer and Sachin Tendulkar. I think the ideal description of someone like me would be ‘a jack of all trades and master of none’. If you look at my life, you’ll see that I’ve tried to do different things and done them well enough to have them recognised as good, if not excellent or amazing. Some people, on the other hand, try to do just one thing like taking on one job and doing it for fifty years. I get bored very easily, so because of that, I like to try out various things. I am also a very creative person and in the creative space, you want to do different things. You succeed in some, you fail in others. That is what drives me forward. I am not someone who is cut out for a nine-to-five job every day of the week (laughs).

Q: The title of your autobiography is “Blood, Sweat and Treason”.Was ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ an alternative title for the book while you were in the initial stage of writing it?

Olonga: We tried a number of titles. This, of course, is not my title but one suggested by the publisher. My title was actually called Dinner with the Rothschilds, which was quite an interesting title because I went and sang for a very wealthy banking family in the UK. It was such a weird experience because here was a former cricket player singing to so many wealthy and distinguished people, and the Queen of Jordan was also there. It was so, so weird (breaks into another fit of laughter)!

Q: I am talking to a man who had the courage to protest against his country’s president on as big a stage as the World Cup. Would you like yourself to be called a ‘rebel’?

Olonga: No, I don’t think so. If you stand up and raise questions about a terrible government or a terrible leader, that doesn’t make you a rebel. It means you are standing up against injustice and a terrible system. I think most people who look at the situation in Zimbabwe now, including our cricket which is on the cusp of getting eliminated, would say that the leadership has got everything horribly wrong. Any normal person who reads about the corruption in Zimbabwe would question the administration and accept that it’s wrong; it doesn’t make you a rebel. However, not everyone is willing to stand up and speak out against governments. And if you are a sportsperson, even less so. That’s why you are labelled as a ‘rebel’ because you are stepping outside the parameters of what people generally expect of you. The same thing happened with Kerry Packer. He was called a rebel, and the players who signed up for the World Series Cricket were also called rebels. They weren’t rebels. I would say they were far ahead of their time. If you look at how the world has adopted the T20 format and this weird pyjama cricket, you would agree that those players who went and played in the World Series are the original pioneers of what has become normal now.

Twenty years from now, when people will read about what Mugabe did during his regime, their sentiments, I am sure, will concur with what I felt first-hand in my youth. I’ve really moved on from that phase. I have a lovely family now and am devoted to raising my two daughters. I was a ‘rebel’for only a week.

Q: Were you ever influenced by the ideals of any revolutionary like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro before mustering the courage to stand up against such a powerful dictator as Mugabe?

Olonga: No, Fidel Castro didn’t influence me (guffaws). If you read my book, you’ll get to know how I got to the point where I was convinced that I had to protest. My influences were very different. Of course, since I am a committed Christian, my Christian faith was important. In addition, people who advocated justice and fairness…people like Martin Luther King, Edmund Burke, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko…all those who called for equality and fought against social evils like apartheid were the ones I drew inspiration from. Mandela was called a ‘terrorist’ by some, but I don’t think anyone would dare to call him that now. My people were not oppressed by apartheid because Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. But they were being oppressed by a new ruler, who was effectively subjugating them and suppressing their voices through different means like abuse of power, killings, tortures, mass inflation, corruption et cetera. There were so many things the Mugabe government did that have culminated in the Zimbabwe that you see now.

Henry Olonga wears a black armband © Reuters

Q: Is it true that you were inspired by Gladiator and imagined yourself as Maximus before deciding to wear that black armband during the 2003 World Cup?

Olonga: Well, the night before the Namibia game, I really needed to embolden myself…I needed to be brave…to psych myself up. I read an article in which Tendulkar said that the night before that Sharjah final in 1998 (Coca-Cola Champions Trophy), he listened to Guns N’ Roses. Everyone remembers what happened after that (laughs)! In a similar way, the night before our first game at the 2003 World Cup, I watched Gladiator and I loved the scene where Russell Crowe is in the arena and the emperor gives thumbs down, which implies that he should be killed. But the crowd is obviously won over, and they love these new champions, these new gladiators, who have defeated all the soldiers. And the emperor comes down to the arena and beholds the man who was supposed to be a slave, but is now the commander of the army. That scene is so iconic because that is where you see Maximus at his strongest. Even though he doesn’t survive till the end, in any case, it is such a great movie because it tells the story of a man who rose from being nobody to challenging the emperor in the face.

Q: I assume Hans Zimmers’ music was playing in your mind when you stepped on to the field…

Olonga: Ha ha! I am not sure I analysed it that way, but probably yes.

Q: I’ve read that you used to put copies of the Bible inside the kit bags of your Zimbabwean teammates when they wouldn’t be around. How difficult was it to practise Christianity in a team where not everyone had the same religious conviction as yours?

Olonga: Yeah, of course. I think you are right. I became a practising Christian at the age of sixteen when I was confronted with the message that most people would describe as the Gospel, ‘’Christ died for our sins’’.  That’s a message I had heard many, many times before, but when I was sixteen, I found it really compelling. I realized that I would be a fool to turn away from it. I know it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. Of course, many religions exist and there are several paths that lead to God, but I found my path in the Christian faith which claims to be the faith that has the one living God.

One of the things that Christians do is they tell other people about the God they believe in. Now I gave copies of the Bible to people if they wanted them. I wouldn’t give them away if people didn’t want them. I always tried to challenge my teammates about the concepts that Christianity extols such as eternal life, forgiveness of sins, peace with God et cetera, et cetera, because at the end of the day, we are all human beings…we still have to deal with essential questions about life. Even if you get a hundred or get out for nought, you still have to ask yourself what the heck your life matters for. I think every single human being is confronted with the question: why does my life matter at all? It’s a really interesting question to ask yourself that in this planet, with over 7 billion people, where do you fit in…how does it matter whether I am here or not…how does it matter for my posterity?  Is there an afterlife? Is there hope beyond the grave? You know, these are all questions that every human being has to deal with, and if you get to the other side of life and then realize that there is indeed a Creator, you’ll consider yourself a fool if you denied His existence all through your life. So God has chosen certain ambassadors who would tell others about Him, and that’s what I did with my teammates. I still do that whenever I travel around Australia, or when I lived in England. Christian faith is very important to me. It also informs my conscience and played a very vital part in the black armband protest. So when Mugabe was doing terrible things to his own people, they needed someone to raise his/her voice on their behalf. That’s what Christianity teaches you—to care for others.

Q: Does your family still live in Zimbabwe? Do you go to Zimbabwe and meet them?

Olonga: Yes, my dad and brother Victor still live in Zimbabwe. My dad has grown very old; he is in his mid-eighties. I’ve never been back to Zimbabwe since leaving the country in 2003.

Q: What is the current state of affairs in Zimbabwe like?

Olonga: Zimbabwe is struggling at the moment. We have a new president now named Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mugabe was forced to resign, or he resigned of his own accord—whichever way you want to interpret it. Under the new president’s rule, the country is seeing hyperinflation, constant blackouts, and very poor water supply. You guys think Chennai is bad? Come and see the situation in Zimbabwe (laughs)! Mugabe has been replaced by someone who is equally bad.

Q: Are you in touch with any of the current crop of Zimbabwe cricketers?

Olonga: Only via social media. A lot of them aren’t people I would normally hang out with. When I finished playing, I stayed in touch with some. Once in a while, I may talk to Mr (Andy) Flower but I’ve dropped my own circle of friends as have they. We’ve all moved on.

Zimbabwe ODI Team
© AFP

Q: It must have been very painful for you to learn of the Zimbabwean team’s suspension by the ICC. The suspension has been imposed owing to “government interference”. Why at all should the players have to face the brunt?

Olonga: I was indeed very saddened by the suspension of the Zimbabwean team. Of course, there is massive debate about whether it was political interference in the first place because the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) is not a political body but one appointed by politicians. I thought its recommendations were fair; they wanted to clean up the sport. I found it very weird that Imran Khan recently appointed someone to run cricket in Pakistan, which is not considered “political interference”. [It’s] very weird. It is the culmination of years and years of mismanagement at Zimbabwe Cricket. This was pointed out to the ICC by David Coltart many years ago, but they simply ignored it. I honestly don’t know what’s going on in the ICC. We hear talks of them wanting to spread the game, but I don’t remember seeing a major Test-playing nation struggling as badly as Zimbabwe has been. It seems as if cutting Zimbabwe off is the way forward.

Now Zimbabwe may well get reinstated if they do everything right, and I don’t know what that means. Assuming that Zimbabwe comes back into the sport, it still wouldn’t mean that they are going to be successful. They still have to win. It’s a shame that we couldn’t beat the Netherlands and Ireland. It’s more worrisome for me than whether they remain a Test-playing nation or not. Other teams are performing a lot better than us. It shows how far we’ve gone down.

Q: As you said just now, the ICC proclaims that it wants to spread the game, but all major shots in world cricket are effectively called by the Big Three (England-India-Australia) at present. Do you think this is a major impediment to cricket becoming a truly ‘global’ game?

Olonga: My main concern is cricket in Africa. The ICC claims itself to be the custodian of the game, and it’s up to them to ensure that the game not only spreads but also survives in the lesser nations. Every democracy works like this. You take money from the rich people and spread it, so that the poor people can catch it. Ideally, you should tax the highest earners more, so that the poorer people can get subsidies. This happens here in Australia. We have a thing here called the Medicare and another thing called Centrelink which makes sure that if you are unemployed or don’t have money, the government will take care of you.

Similarly, the weaker nations should be helped along by the stronger nations, and if you cut them off, you’ll see countries dying off. Now we have already seen that happen with Kenya. In 2003, they made the World Cup semi-finals. It’s extraordinary that four World Cups later they are nowhere. A major powerhouse in world cricket, which Kenya was expected to become, is now absolutely dead. Gone! In Africa, if one major cricket nation dies, that’s bad enough. If two die in the space of sixteen years, that’s a disgrace to the ICC because it hasn’t worked hard enough to ensure that the younger, poorer nations survive. Countries that struggle need help when they are at their lowest, and Zimbabwean cricket is now at its nadir not only from the mismanagement point of view but also if you take the focus off cricket. Zimbabwe’s economy has been absolutely decimated over the past one decade or so. You may say that’s because of bad governance, but even so a country like Sri Lanka, despite its financial mismanagement or bad governance, would never be cut off by the ICC. That would never happen with Bangladesh, or, for that matter, any country which is not in Africa. If you look at South African cricket, they had their poorest turnout at this year’s World Cup. What I am saying is that the ICC needs to pay attention to Africa, else African cricket might be gone in another twenty years. And this is a time when cricket is having a bumper harvest with so much of money being poured into it. The ICC will do what it wants to do, but it’s simply not acceptable. If you want to call me a rebel at this moment, fine. But I think it’s just terrible. I think it’s against the spirit of cricket. I think it’s against everything the ICC apparently stands for. Moreover, it is also a backing a Board that has proven to be incapable of doing things right. The man running Zimbabwean cricket at the moment—Tavengwa Mukuhlani—is an MP, who likes to drink champagne with politicians in England. He keeps his job, whereas the players are retiring. Givemore Makoni (managing director of Zimbabwe Cricket), who is known to extort money from players, is getting $ 20,000 a month. For what? (In a more probing tone) For what? That man earns a quarter of a million dollars every year. Don’t misunderstand me, but in four years of pencil pushing he will earn a million dollars. Compare this to the players’ plight. Some of the junior players are getting only $ 10 to play a match. How is the ICC saying that’s okay? I can’t understand how it is possible for them to accept it? The game’s ideals are clearly not being upheld by those running it in Zimbabwe. And I would say it’s a shame on the ICC, an absolute shame on them to insist that the only way forward is to reinstate a bunch of people who do not have the sport’s best interests at heart!

Q: I know it has been long since you severed your ties with the game, but would it be possible for Henry Olonga to try and take the initiative to improve the dying state of Zimbabwean cricket in some way?

Olonga: Well…listen, my friend. I love Zimbabwean cricket but Zimbabwe doesn’t love me. There are two things. You should know that I get a lot of hatred from the Zimbabweans because they apparently think I am anti-Zimbabwe cricket. That’s very sad. (Pause) I’ve always had a policy that I go to places only where I am invited. If I am invited to Zimbabwe to help, I will surely help. The second thing is there are others things in life that I am busy with now. I earn okay money; I am not rich. If my wife weren’t working, we would’ve been struggling. I’ve got other interests and I get paid well for those things. I’ve got mouths to feed and musical lessons to pay for. So I won’t go to Zimbabwe purely out of the goodness of my heart. If they invite me for one inspirational talk, maybe I could do that. I’ve got other things that I’ve got to achieve in life. I know there are a lot of people who love to hear me sing, talk, and they don’t yell or swear at me (laughs). So, as long as there is ill-will towards me, as there clearly is among so many Zimbabweans, I would prefer to keep myself away. On the flip side, every Indian I’ve interacted with online, it’s always a pleasure. I rarely give interviews to Zimbabwean journalists but I am happy to give interviews to Indian people. Can you believe that?

Henry Olonga traps Venkatesh Prasad lbw to seal an amazing comeback win by Zimbabwe © Getty Images

Q: Thanks so much, Henry. Let’s talk about your cricket career now. People keep talking about the contests between you and Tendulkar, but most of us tend to forget your good performances against India like your maiden Test five-wicket haul in Harare or your match-winning final spell in Leicester at the 1999 World Cup. Did playing against India give you extra motivation?

Olonga: I don’t know, mate. I didn’t go out thinking that India was easy or anything. I just happened to get success against them. Maybe it can be attributed to the fact that I was a bowler who hit the deck hard and back in those days many Indian players had poor away records because, in my estimation, they were used to playing on low and slow surfaces. They weren’t used to bounce. I mustn’t be unkind to my Indian friends; there were many classy Indian batsmen during my time. You had Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Mohammad Azharuddin, VVS Laxman. These were players who scored runs all around the world, but it was just that the techniques that were good at fending off bounce on low and slow wickets got severely tested in conditions that favoured pace and bounce. So I had success in Sharjah (the 1998 Coca-Cola Champions Trophy league game against India) on a bouncy wicket, at the Harare Sports Club, and of course at the World Cup. I think these are the three matches wherein I did well against the Indians. They got better of me in the rest of the matches (laughs). I think because I had good pace I was able to get success against Asian teams, but on most days I was very erratic. I bowled well to be remembered for some time, but if I did that more consistently, I could have looked back at my career and remarked, “Oh! What a wonderful career!”

Q: How much did your interaction with Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation impact your career?

Olonga: Dennis Lillee was very instrumental in helping me develop a legal bowling action, along with TA Sekar and Joel Garner. I was there when Venkatesh Prasad was there as well. It was very interesting. I really loved my time at the academy and the culture over there as well. I had a great experience being in India and living there for two or three weeks. It was really special.

Q: Tell us about your family. Are your two daughters interested in cricket? Do they check their dad’s cricket statistics on the internet?

Olonga: I studied at a school where we had corporal punishment. The world is very different now. We don’t go about beating our children. Of course I and my wife are trying to pass on the ideals of truth and honesty, which I imbibed from the Plumtree School, and some of my religious faith to our daughters, but we also make sure that we don’t impose all our aspirations and views on those two kids. I want them to do well in music. We’ve also got them in swimming and tennis. I don’t think they are much interested in cricket. They are just like any other child in this day and age. They are interested in Netflix and TV more than their father (laughs). But that’s okay.

Q: Final question. What made you more nervous—making your Test debut against Pakistan or appearing for the Blind Audition on The Voice Australia?

Olonga: (Guffaws) Oh my gosh! I think playing against Pakistan because they were the world champions when I made my international debut. They had a superb team with phenomenal players, and I was a boy trying to still figure out how to play the game. I had lots of questions back then as you are having now, so that was much harder. As far as The Voice is considered, it was relatively easier because I’ve been professionally singing for a long time. I kind of know what I am capable of as a singer, whereas when I was a boy playing cricket against men, I just didn’t know whether I was good enough.

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