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Taibu, Olonga renew calls for Zim players’ union to resolve crisis

Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) and the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) have agreed terms on a settlement, and the dust is starting to clear in what has been one of the deepest crises in the country’s cricketing history.

Tatenda Taibu and Henry Olonga
Tatenda Taibu and Henry Olonga

But the resolution has come too late considering Zimbabwe’s men’s and women’s teams are out of the T20 World Cup next year. Could a players’ union have kept them out of the administrative power struggle and made a difference to their fate?

Zimbabwe is one of the few Full Members to not have an active players’ association, but that’s not for lack of trying on the part of players.

In the last few decades, they have tried several times to self organise, bargain collectively and engage in industrial action with the board.

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There have been minor victories along the way, but sustainable solutions have remained elusive, and the formation of a union in the Zimbabwean context is a knotty subject.

“Zimbabwe is a complex country,” says Henry Olonga.

The country’s first black Test cricketer began his career when some of the issues originally arose. Now he’s one of the millions of Zimbabwean scatterlings living around the world, part of almost an entire generation that left home looking for a better life. He had as good a reason as any to take flight.

“It’s drawn along tribal lines,” Olonga tells ESPNcricinfo. “Shona vs Ndebele. Whites vs blacks. Rich vs poor. There’s so many lines.”

Those lines are no less apparent in cricket, but Zimbabwe’s current crop didn’t invent the problem; they inherited it.

“All of this began way back,” Olonga says. “It’s not a recent thing.”

At the turn of the millennium, Olonga explains, “the players were starting to understand their value. We were starting to understand how much money was coming in from the ICC. We might not be the smartest cookies in the country, but we can certainly do some math, and we figured it out.

That began the process of a shift in power from the board, ZCU (Zimbabwe Cricket Union) as it was (at the time), towards the players.”

The first thing they did was pass a vote of no-confidence against their coach Dave Houghton, during a tour of the Caribbean. Then, ahead of their next trip, to England, they threatened not to go and the board offered them a better deal. They enlisted John Bredenkamp to represent them.

“For the first time, players were recruiting someone who had money and political influence,” Olonga says.

“We certainly started to show that if we stuck together, we had bargaining power. We didn’t really have that before, so that was a major power shift. In effect, the gloves were off between us and the board. So the board had to respond, and they did.

“When I use that phrase ‘divide and rule’, that’s exactly what they did. In other countries, you’ve got very strong labour laws which might prevent them from exploiting or abusing you. But we just don’t have that in Zimbabwe, at least not enforceable.”

If anything, the problems faced by the average Zimbabwean cricketer in the early 2000s have only become more acute since. A decade on from Olonga’s premature retirement in 2003, players remained riven by inequalities of their own, and easily taken advantage of.

Godwill Mamhiyo moved on from captaining Zimbabwe Under-19 in 2011 to leading Matabeleland Tuskers in the 2014-15 season. Then he stepped away from the game entirely, ending his professional career while still in his early 20s.

Last month, Mamhiyo took to Twitter to spell out a considered take on how the country’s cricketers have come to be divided and ruled, and how that contributed to his decision to leave the game.

“The system is definitely to blame,” Mamhiyo told ESPNcricinfo, although he also had first-hand experience in the break-up of a player union during his time as Matabeleland Tuskers captain.

In late 2014, all the country’s domestic players went on strike, their second in as many seasons. Through a representative, lawyer Eliah Zvimba, an agreement was brokered to get them playing again, and it hinged on the upcoming World Cup, and the financial windfall that would come with it for participating teams.

“The agreement was that that money should filter down all the way from the national captain to the club cricketer in Zimbabwe,” Mamhiyo said.

“All the players agreed to this. But the battle went on and on, and again it was (the) divide and conquer (plan).”

Instead of being shared among all the cricketers in the country, the World Cup money went primarily to the national squad. The union was broken.

“If 15 players are going to eat the whole cake, then what happens to the rest of the players?” Mamhiyo asked.

“It’s things like that that will always cripple the players.”

Players are made doubly vulnerable by the challenging economic situation in Zimbabwe and the lack of any alternative to cricket, having turned professional straight out of high school.

“At times, people are pressed to make choices that they wouldn’t normally make. Sometimes it’s just the economy that dictates things. A sport is an extension of the culture of a nation, and the culture in Zimbabwe is being extended into sport.”

There have been many more attempts by Zimbabwe’s cricketers to organise themselves. Between Bredenkamp and Zvimba came Colin Blythe-Wood, Clive Field and Blessing Mahwire. They have even sought help from the South African Cricketers Association in their efforts over the years. In June last year, there was yet another attempt to form a union, with Brendan Taylor spurring calls for change and mooting Gerald Mlotshwa, current chairman of the SRC, as a potential representative.

Tatenda Taibu, Zimbabwe’s first black captain and a firm believer in the need for players to organise, spoke out about ZC’s treatment of Taylor at the time. Taibu calls the nullifying of such player movements “the main element of the old divide and rule tactic”.

“I also think that part of the problem is that: either not enough players are educated enough to understand certain things or don’t have exposure to know how things are done within an organisation,” Taibu tells ESPNcricinfo.

“Definitely, a strong players’ union is needed and will sort out these problems.”

Olonga agrees that an active players’ union is necessary.

“If we survive this, we still have a mountain to climb in changing the culture. To retain players and value players, and put that all together to turn us into a winning combination. It’s hard enough to win matches at the best of times. To make yourself a competitive team, you need all your ducks lined up in a row. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with it. They need a vibrant players’ body,” Olonga said. – ESPNcricinfo