Zimbabwe’s rapid decline

Muttaih Muralitharan(left) and Arjuna Ranatunga(right) (Courtesy CricTracker.com)

Spectator

Remember Sri Lanka’s opening fixture of the 1992 World Cup! Zimbabwe, yet to become a Test playing nation, gave us a near scare. The rookies piled up over 300 runs with debutant Andy Flower posting a fine hundred. It needed Arjuna Ranatunga’s cool head to overcome the obstacle as Sri Lanka became the first team in the history of the game to successfully chase a target of over 300.

It didn’t take that long for Flower to become the world’s number one batsman. His greatest achievement was that he succeeded in India where square turners have humbled some of world’s leading batsmen.

Flower was the cornerstone of their cricket and others like brother Grant, Sri Lanka’s current Batting Coach, Murray Goodwin, Neil Johnson, Heath Streak, Alastair Campbell et al, made their cricket team a formidable unit. Zimbabwe were making rapid progress and made a telling impact in the 1999 World Cup where they reached the second round whereas other teams like defending champions Sri Lanka and hosts England made first round exits.

Soon there was trouble. President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reforms saw the mass exodus of white farmers who relocated to Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa. With that cricket too faded away. Zimbabwe were no longer a force to be reckoned with and recently were suspended by the International Cricket Council due to the government’s interference with the sport. The ban was lifted last December and the Sri Lankan team was the first to visit the country since their readmission.

Often President Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for over 30 years, is blamed for the country’s economic, political and sporting failures. But does Mugabe deserve all the blame? It is all too well known how the white colonists grabbed land in that country two centuries ago. When Mugabe came to power, he wanted the land to be redistributed to the black majority.

Andy Flower (Courtesy ICC-Cricket.com)
Andy Flower (Courtesy ICC-Cricket.com)

However, then British Prime Minister John Major reached an agreement with Mugabe’s ZANU PF Government on a mechanism where the white land owners will be compensated by the British Government for giving up lands. But when Tony Blair’s Labour Party came into power in 1997, the British Government would not live up to their promise. The compensation package was thrown out of the window. Pushed to the wall Mugabe was left with little alternative other than to implement his reforms. This in turn resulted in the mass exodus of white farmers and the country’s economy crashed following British sanctions. Cricket could not survive.

The Spectator and a few other local journalists visited Zimbabwe in 2004 at the height of those reforms. Sri Lanka dominated the series winning all eight games and Muttaih Muralitharan broke the World Record for most wickets in Test cricket in Harare. But the incidents that took place off the field left an indelible mark in our memories.

Zimbabwe was still a prosperous country. The road network built by the British and the Railway Service were top notch. Tourism was one of their main sources of income with Victoria Falls being the best attraction. All four Sri Lankan journalists took the overnight train from Bulawayo to see the majestic Victoria Falls and that is an experience we will never forget.

Mugabe’s Presidential Palace was right next to the Harare Cricket Stadium where most of the games were played. The Public weren’t allowed to travel on that road but one of us showed his Sri Lankan passport and we were allowed to use the road by the Elite Forces guarding the Palace and its surroundings. For once we realized the value of a Sri Lankan passport! Another one suggested that maybe we should pay a visit to President Mugabe now that we had come so close. Someone else shot down the idea saying that we would get late for the pre match press briefing. The Spectator still in his mid-20s was watching all the fun travelling amidst seasoned reporters.

The inflation was killing the locals. The exchange rate when we landed in Harare was 5200 Zimbabwe Dollars for one US$. But six weeks later, when we returned, it had skyrocketed to 5700 Zimbabwe Dollars for one US$.

Those days, we used Traveller’s Cheques.  We had to carry a bag to the bank to change a note of 100US$. The situation went from bad to worse and a few years later there were even One Trillion Dollar Zimbabwe notes circulating in the country.

All foreign journalists visiting Zimbabwe had to obtain a pass from the Media Ministry paying a princely sum of 300US$. We visited the office to obtain the pass and were generously told that this was to discourage journalists from writing adverse reports on the country and journalists from friendly nations like Sri Lanka were exempted from paying the fee. Some others were not so lucky. A journalist from the BBC who was reporting on the series was deported on the eve of the second Test match.

Robert Mugabe (Courtesty Biography.com)
Robert Mugabe (Courtesty Biography.com)

Despite economic hardships, the crime rate in Zimbabwe was extremely low and we never had any trouble although there were plenty of late nights. It was much safer than some of the other cricket centers like Johannesburg, Jamaica or Nairobi.

There were quite a few Sri Lankans living in Zimbabwe at that point. We met a few doctors in Bulawayo. Some of them travelled to Harare the day Murali broke the World Record. When they asked Murali what he wanted for dinner that night, he replied, ‘kos mallum’. The good doctors travelled around the city to find a similar variety to the jackfruit and their generous ladies did a fine job to cook a dish that tasted similar to ‘kos mallum’.

There’s never a dull moment with Murali. In the afternoon, he entertained us with his cricketing skills and in the night, he kept everyone entertained with his jokes.

Those are some of the memories of Zimbabwe. Sadly, that country has lost some of its aura at present. While President Mugabe doesn’t deserve all the blame, he could have learned a thing or two from his South African counterpart – Comrade Nelson Mandela.

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