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Sadness beneath the smiles

By Peter Roebuck
February 19, 2003 22:41 IST
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A carnival atmosphere prevailed at Harare sports ground as a large and boisterous crowd urged its team towards greater effort against the visiting Indians.

Faces were painted and songs sung by youthful spectators who wandered around during the intervals, catching up with old friends.  

It was a diverse crowd with lots of whites and blacks and hundreds of Indians mingling in the stands. Some had painted the national colours on their faces, other groups worked in unison to spell Zimbabwe. Everyone wants to get on television.

Frankly it did not feel any different from a typical one-day match. If anything, it was unusually relaxed, with much cheerful singing and swaying.

Of course this does not mean that all is well in Zimbabwe. Perhaps it was like the band playing as the Titanic went down, a determination to enjoy life whilst it lasted, a desire to show that politicians can take a lot but cannot break a man's spirit or a nation's pride.

These people know about hunger, poverty, shortges and the collapse of infrastructure. It is their life. Yet there are many fine men and women of all colours and tribes who will not give in.

Political differences were forgotten for a day as schoolboys and adults enjoyed the opportunity to watch top-class cricket. About the only sign of protest came from a white couple waving a small banner proclaiming "Olonga and Flower, batting for Zimbabwe".  About ten other white spectators donned the armbands and said they intended to leave by the back door as otherwise they might be arrested. The police took no notice of them, and moved around without menace, presumably part of a charm offensive. Police officers sat in front of the stands and seemed keener to prevent invasions of cricket fields than farms.

Amongst the Zimbabwean players, the Ervines have been ejected and are living in the manager's house on a neighbouring property whilst rearing chickens and rabbits. The Streaks and Whittals are back on their land but the invasions continue and high ranking sports officials have benefitted from them.

These cricketing families care about their country and will not leave, not even Andy Flower. Sadness must lie beneath the smiles seen on the field and around the ground; after the fun the struggle resumes.

Far and away the loudest noises were produced by groups of traditional dancers from the suburbs of Harare who performed ritualistic dances for rain, war and kingly initiation. These dancers wore goatskins and feathers and stamped their feet on the concrete road outside the ground whilst colleagues beat on drums made from cowskin. Spectators passed them on their way into the ground, through security officials searching for political banners, sticks and alcohol. Hardly anything was confiscated. It wasn't that sort of day. People wanted to enjoy themselves.

All eyes were upon Andy Flower and Henry Olonga as the match began. After their protest in the opening match they were under enormous pressure to stand their ground and just as much pressure to hold back, the point having been made. After much soul-searching a clever compromise was found. Rather than defying the ICC or imperiling their position and prospects, the pair did not wear  armbands. Instead Flower appeared in black wristbands with which he regularly mopped his brow. After a long selectorial debate, and at the casting vote of the captain, Olonga was made twelth man and emerged later wearing black bandages on some evidently sore elbows. No statement was issued. A man may choose his own wristbands. Streak choose white bands, which will only add to the suspicions of the worthless dimwits who demonise him.

The Indians had problems of their own. Mohammad Kaif's house had been stoned, Rahul Dravid's windscreen had been broken and, without any Australian presence, protests had been staged at the home of Sourav Ganguly. 

As far as they were concerned Harare was  a quiet backwater. Reporters raised in Durban and Johannesburg confirm the point, though the Englanders seem willing to visit these places, and even Heathrow airport.

Desperate to turn things around, the Indians juggled their batting order in search of the magic formula, with Dinesh Mongia appearing at first wicket down and promptly slowing the innings down with a lamentable effort. Bogged down by the spinners, till Grant Flower withdrew after breaking the webbing on his fingers, the Indians rallied somewhat to reach a challenging score on a slowish pitch.

India defended its total skillfully, with Asish Nehra bowling with a pace and athleticism not previously seen from him. Javagal Srinath was superb and the players threw themselves around and gathered in hugging circles every time a wicket fell. They have bounced back before.

Zimbabwe played with the utmost spirit. Tatendra Taibu took a fine catch and is fulfilling his promise. Two years ago, he was sharing a dormitory with Hamilton Masakadza, another Test cricketer, who is studying in Bloemfontein. Dion Ebrahim fielded magnificently and did his bit for the Asian community but threw his wicket away. Everyone fought tenaciously but wickets fell as the Indians gave nothing away. Zimbabwe was not shamed in defeat. Spectators enjoyed themselves and headed for home after a day watching a cricket match played between 22 committed young men. Australia has little to fear, on the field or off it, and might be surprised by the warmth of their reception from locals able to distinguish between sport and affairs of their disintegrating state.

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Peter Roebuck