For Christmas I was bought Henry Olonga’s biography “Blood, Sweat and Treason”.
Well, I asked for it.
It was an interesting biography. Quite a few cricketing biographies you read go “and then I got picked for Surrey u11s, and then I got picked for Surrey u13s, and then I got picked for the senior team, and then I got picked for England”, with a smattering of personal life in between ‘hilarious’ (ahem) anecdotes about the occasional off-field escapades with team-mates.
Olonga’s book is rather different.
Although he is easy-going to the point of horrific naivety, Olonga is not a natural comedian and a light-hearted romp this isn’t, and yet he is obviously pretty talented when it came to a lot of other things in life. The book is geared towards the career (and perhaps life) defining action of Olonga’s protest against the Mugabe regime.
Olonga was also the first black Zimbabwean cricketer, and also faced issues with injury, form, and accusations of ‘chucking’ early in his career, as well as being used and abused by a number of emergent factions within Zimbabwe and particularly Zimbabwean cricket – almost always to the detriment of the relationship he had with his team-mates. Although I intend to write further on the book at some point, at this moment I found it interesting for it’s takes on one man in particular:
Andy Flower, then captain of Zimbabwe and certainly their greatest EVER player bar Graeme Hick (of course), was first mentioned when Olonga was brought into the Test squad for his debut aged just 18:
Andy was the consummate professional and a tough taskmaster. He didn’t suffer fools gladly: he had no time for players who didn’t train properly…Andy was not to be messed with. As a captain, what he said went, and he was not the sort of guy to put his arm around you and encourage you. So if you are playing for him, don’t give your wicket away and bowl the ball in the right place or else you will know about it.
An interesting enough snippet without being overly controversial. Flower had high standards for himself, expected the same of others, and wouldn’t be shy about pointing out when others had slipped. Nothing much to see here.
What really struck me though was later in the book, the difference between Flower and Olonga in the lead up to their united protest. Flower was the instigator – an act that he should certainly be commended for – but although Olonga never actually voices the words or hints at it himself, to me it almost felt unfair that he brought Olonga into the mix.
Let me add some background to this:
Flower was one of the world’s best batsmen and had been playing with Essex in County Cricket successfully already. He had the highest Test batting average for a wicket keeper of all time (possibly this has been surpassed by AB De Villiers), and was in high demand as a respected international cricketer. Flower knew exactly the consequences of his actions, he knew where he was going, he probably knew how many years he wanted to continue playing for Essex for, and even what he was going to do after retiring from playing.
Olonga on the other hand was never a man with a plan at the best of times. He was a man trying to prove himself at the start of an international career, and he was utterly clueless about what to do after the protest, or how even to get out of the country safely if Zimbabwe had not reached the Super Sixes. Olonga’s post International cricket career has been something that he has fallen into rather than something that he had put any thought into whatsoever. This shouldn’t be a surprise – he didn’t even plan to become a cricketer.
Now I can see why Olonga, as the first black Zimbabwean to play for the national side, was important to the success of any protest. He added a vital symbolism to the act. Yet it hardly seems right that Olonga was given mere “weeks” before the 2003 World Cup started in order to secure his future from the point of being brought into the protest by Flower. These men were hardly great friends, so it was a huge leap of faith for Olonga to back the protest:
“But now I couldn’t figure out why this guy who hadn’t been prepared to give me the time of day for so long would want to talk to me now. Andy may well disagree that we got on badly. Maybe he didn’t mean to come across in that way. But it was intriguing that he suddenly wanted to talk away from the cricketing environment which, as far as I was concerned, was the only thing we now had in common.”
And in hindsight:
“I didn’t know what to make of him in those days, but now I realise he is a good husband and father, a loyal friend and a genuinely nice man. The only weak link in the chain when I was playing with him was his man-management, but he has clearly sorted that out with the passage of time and I am sure that he is a fantastic coach. The players must love him. He always talks sense and he does have a larger-than-life aura about him.”
Now, the book was released at the peak of Flower’s coaching tenure as England coach, in 2010. I did wonder as I was reading whether or not the last few words would still be there if the book was released in, say 2015. It is impossible to say how much it is worth taking from Olonga’s book, but I think they provide a context to some of the recent grumbles about Andy Flower. He comes across as a dedicated and diligent man of method – far removed from Olonga’s markedly more chaotic, personality-led life. What is certainly noticeable is that Flower was always in control – if not of others, then certainly of his own actions.
Although this is becoming rather hypothetical, it is very easy to picture the scene of Paul Downton flying out to Sydney and being confronted with a coach who was in complete control of himself and his role. The scoreline might have suggested that there were major issues within Flower’s England camp, but by exuding complete and utter authority, combined with an assured presentation of a confident plan for a successful future might just have earnt Flower a move upstairs rather than out the door, and also helped evade the ignominy of a career busting dissection of some of the critical management errors throughout the final year of his tenure.