Zimbabwe’s second innings

In November 2017, Robert Mugabe was toppled in a coup. Amid this epochal change, life—and cricket—simply went on for Zimbabweans, who are still in search of a better future.

Image credit Jekesai Njikizana © iZimPhoto.

Good morning, Zimbabwe. The situation in our country has moved to another level.

– Maj. Gen. SB Moyo, 15 November 2017

Asante sana.

– President Robert Gabriel Mugabe, 20 November 2017

I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, in terms of Section 96, Sub-Section 1 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, hereby formally tender my resignation as the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe with immediate effect.

– Mugabe, 21 November 2017

Finally, it rained. I stood on the lawn with arms outstretched like a scarecrow, bare feet rooted to the sodden soil, droplets dancing on skin. They call this city “Skies,” and in all weathers the moniker proves apt. From horizon to horizon, a vast glaucous cloudbank roiled and swelled, spilling water in great sheets to quench the earth and clean the dust from the air.

October was not yet fully past when the first rains of the summer arrived that year. I was in Bulawayo to cover a pair of matches between Zimbabwe and the West Indies. It would be a positively profligate ten days of Test cricket—the sport’s longest and highest-level form—at Queens Sports Club in the City of Kings, another of the city’s titles. The change of season had been heralded by a wild fluctuation in the mercury: the week of the first Test, the temperature shot up to 38 degrees before plummeting down to 14. Then the rain arrived, early and dramatic, amid thunder that cracked the sky and gusting wind that shook the trees in the yard around me, spattering and spraying raindrops even under the covered verandah. Signs and wonders.

Zimbabwe stumbled to defeat in the first game, failing to build upon the advantage their bowlers had earned on the first day—but they rallied to save the second. Hamilton Masakadza scored his final Test century (a score of 100 runs by an individual batter in a single inning) versus the same team against whom he’d scored his first, as a teenager, all the way back in 2001; Sikandar Raza’s allround brilliance kept Zimbabwe in the match; and Regis Chakabva and Graeme Cremer batted together for more than two-and-a-half hours to draw the game on the fifth afternoon.

Having arrived so spectacularly, the rain never really left, settling into a steady mizzle that people here call guti. We were listening to the water dripping through the gutters and onto the verandah stonework of that house in Hillside—a suburb a couple of kilometers from Bulawayo’s city center—when the rumors began to circulate. Labeled a “coup plotter” by then-First Lady Grace Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa had been dismissed from the vice presidency on November 6th and left the country in dramatic circumstances. His whereabouts were unknown. The following week, tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen moving around the outskirts of Harare, with video clips being shared rampantly across social media.

We scrolled through hot takes, speculation, and memes; blasted Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” out of subwoofers with bass to rattle your soul; and wondered what would happen next. Our host assured us that he knew all the best caves in the nearby Matopos hills to hide out in, should things come to that. But there was as much curiosity as there was trepidation, and once the situation really started to move, I knew that I had to be in the capital to witness, in person, whatever was going to happen.

The rain beat me to Harare. In fact, it arrived in time to stop play after tea on the second day of the Logan Cup match, where the Mountaineers faced the Rising Stars at Harare Sports Club (HSC) on 13 November. Masakadza played in this game too, but there was no century this time. The Logan Cup is Zimbabwe’s premier cricket competition, the trophy having been contested since 1903. Its cricket games are played over four days with two innings per side, with breaks for lunch and tea in the afternoon and a pace of gameplay that can vary from frenetic to glacial. This is cricket in the classical sense.

On that same drizzly afternoon, General Constantino Chiwenga, the head of Zimbabwe’s army at the time, held a press conference backed by almost 90 senior army officers at military headquarters in Harare. “The current purging,” he said, “which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith. We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in.”

The next day, the military stepped in, with heavily armed soldiers in armored vehicles taking up key positions around the city and entering the studios of the state broadcaster, ZBC, from which Major General S.B. Moyo delivered his famous speech early on the morning of the 15th.

“Good morning, Zimbabwe,” Moyo said. “The situation in our country has moved to another level.” And so it began. Was this a coup? A soft coup? #NotACoup? Schrodinger’s coup, perhaps? Or, best of all, playing on Zimbabwe’s pseudo-currency: not a coup but a “Bond Coup”—it has 1:1 value with a coup but can only be used in Zimbabwe.

Whatever it was, Moyo was insistent on what it wasn’t. “This is not a military takeover,” he said, incongruous words for a man clad in military fatigues on an unscheduled dawn broadcast. “Remain calm, and limit unnecessary movement,” he added. “However, we encourage those who are employed and those with essential business in the city to continue their normal activities as usual.”

He can surely not have been thinking of men, in flannels and floppy hats, playing a first-class domestic cricket fixture. But that’s exactly what the cricketers at Harare Sports Club did. It is worth pointing out that the sports club is literally next door to State House, the official residence of the president. So close is the country’s premier cricket ground to the president’s old digs that Nathan Lyon, playing for a visiting Australia A-side in 2014, claimed to have hit a six that landed on the presidential lawn. “I think Bobby Mugabe was under attack,” Lyon later claimed. “Second-last ball of the game, three runs to win, it went the journey.”

When Zimbabwe was a fledgling Test nation back in the early 1990s, Mugabe would often pop across the road to watch some cricket or welcome incoming captains. There are several photos of him at HSC, possibly the most (in)famous of which is that of his handshake with Michael Atherton, the English captain, during England’s ill-fated inaugural tour of Zimbabwe in late 1996. “Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen,” Mugabe has been quoted as saying (though the quote is possibly apocryphal). “I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”

The English have not sent a team to Zimbabwe since 2004, and Mugabe moved out of State House in the mid-2000s. But it has remained a potent symbol of state power in the country, fortified and watched over day and night by the presidential guard. Fast forward to 2017, and it was only natural that the place would be the locus of a tectonic power shift—and so, outside the cricket ground were tanks and soldiers. This was ground zero of the palace revolution.

Image credit Jekesai Njikizana © iZimPhoto.

“There was speculation that something is about to take place,” remembers Vusi Sibanda, a veteran Zimbabwean international cricketer, and one of the elder statesmen of the Mountaineers side that played that game. “We knew that being so close, being in the vicinity of it all, that we had to tread very carefully. They said people should just stay away or stay indoors, or something like that, and we were in the middle of the game. I remember being told, let’s just turn up for the game, and see what happens. And if something is to happen, so be it.”

The city center emptied, and for a couple of blocks in every direction, cricketers and soldiers were the only people anywhere near HSC. “There was a time when everything just went dead quiet,” explains Sibanda. “Everything almost just stood still. We didn’t even know what to do. So we decided to just finish the game. We were waiting in limbo, not knowing what was happening next.”

Play on the fourth and final day of that Logan Cup match at HSC, on 15 November, was scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m to make up for time lost to rain earlier in the game. However, the damp conditions overnight delayed it until 10 a.m. Despite being 300 runs ahead, and the likelihood of losing more time to rain during the day, the Mountaineers did not declare their innings closed but continued to bat, with top order batsman Mohammad Eqlakh not out on 135.

Eqlakh’s story could fill a feature all on its own, but it’s worth racing through the key twists and turns of how he found himself playing professional cricket in Zimbabwe. Born in the tiny village of Nevada (population 1,300) in Uttar Pradesh, India, he played age-group cricket for Vidarbha’s regional team and caught the eye of the coach of Zimbabwe’s under-19 squad when they visited India. Expat cricketers are not unheard of in Zimbabwe—the national team’s star allrounder, Sikandar Raza, was born in Sialkot and originally wanted to be a fighter pilot in Pakistan’s Air Force before his path turned to cricket in southern Africa—and it seems that this was the route Eqlakh was pursuing.

Eqlakh arrived in Zimbabwe ahead of the 2017 summer, and in the space of six weeks he cracked a sparkling maiden first-class hundred in that fateful match at HSC, witnessed a putsch first hand, was hit by a car, and endured a torrid experience getting a head wound stitched in a decrepit public hospital. Worse was to follow. In December, it was discovered that Eqlakh’s work visa was not in order, and when he went to Home Affairs to get it sorted, he was promptly detained, and deported back to India days later. That, alas, is not where his story ends. In 2019, Eqlakh was arrested on a murder charge in Nagpur. The case has gone to trial.

But back to the game. On that rainy day in November, Eqlakh was still dreaming big dreams of willow and leather and fame and fortune, and could not have imagined the trouble and woe that lay ahead of him. He raced to 153 not out—his highest score in professional cricket— setting the game up for his team and turning plenty of heads in Zimbabwe’s cricket community.

The Mountaineers declared their innings closed at 262 for 6, leaving the Rising Stars—essentially an academy side made up of talented but inexperienced rookies—the challenge of batting through the fourth afternoon. As events outside the bubble of the cricket ground moved ahead apace, concentrating on the game became almost as difficult as dealing with the Mountaineers’ slippery pace attack.

“I remember that game very well,” one of the youngsters who was part of the Rising Stars squad told me. “Everything happened on day four. It was a scary moment, to be honest, because you didn’t know what could have happened. Anything could have happened on that day. There were what-ifs. What if people just stormed into the ground? What if this happens? What if that happens? What will we do?”

As it happened, of course, nothing happened—at least not yet. The rain forecast for the afternoon did not arrive and Zimbabweans took a softly-softly approach to business as usual. At HSC, wicketkeeper-batsman Ryan Murray battled to 84, shaking off the cobwebs after months of recovery from a back injury, but the Mountaineers’ seasoned pace bowlers made short work of the Rising Stars’ newbies, bowling them out for 144 to win the match by 193 runs.

Meanwhile, in Bulawayo, I had bought tickets for what southern Africans might uncharitably call a chicken bus. A couple of days later, on 17 November, we headed for the capital.

When we arrived in Harare, it was clear that the situation had, indeed, moved to another level. There were people everywhere, in their hundreds of thousands, and a carnivalesque suspension of the normal rules of the city. I saw people streaming through Africa Unity Square like flood water flowing around bedrock. I saw two men dancing in perfect tandem next to a kombi that was so full, people were clinging to the outside of it, its sliding side door wide open. I saw a woman stop four lanes of traffic to dance in the middle of the road with a Zimbabwean flag. I saw a man in a windbreaker LARPing as a revolutionary, carrying a stick wrapped in a belt as if it were an AK-47. I saw masses of people crowding around tanks outside the Munhumutapa Building, the High Court, and Parliament, fist-bumping soldiers and passing babies up to be held by them. I saw a man smoking an enormous joint who just looked at me and laughed, raising the burning saber to say, “this is the new Zimbabwe, it’s legal now!” I saw thousands and thousands of smiling people.

Image credit Jekesai Njikizana © iZimPhoto.

The bus finally pulled into Roadport, the central bus station, and we jumped with our backpacks into the back of a friend’s rattletrap, open-top bakkie, for another drive through the city center. We took in Fourth Street, Jason Moyo Avenue, the Jacaranda-lined tree tunnel that is Milton Street. Every so often, people would leap into the back of the bakkie with us to sing into the crowds or to high-five passers-by. Someone handed me a flag.

We ended up outside Harare Sports Club, a place that holds a very special meaning for me. There is a tradition in my family: at least one of us must be present for every cricket match played here by Zimbabwe. Here, I have cheered and cried; I have witnessed too many excruciating losses and just enough miraculous wins to keep me hoping that the next one isn’t too far away. That hope is the same for any follower of Zimbabwean cricket. Always, there is hope.

But I had never seen anything like this. I put my hands on an armored vehicle parked at the corner of Tongogara and Fourth, just to check that it was real. Then, I looked up at the grandstand behind the trees inside HSC, then down the road to the line of soldiers blocking the crowd from advancing on State House.

In every direction, the streets were filled with people carrying flags and placards. Pastor Evan Mawarire, who had led the #ThisFlag protests the year before, addressed a huge crowd of people from the back of a military vehicle parked outside State House. On Fourth Street, the surging throng of citizens was joined by a group of war veterans. An army tank led the crowds back down to Herbert Chitepo Avenue and Second Street, where yet more people joined them.

There’s a peculiar energy that flows through situations like that. There is a buzz in the air. A static charge. You feel strongly that something meaningful is happening. It is also very much a shared experience, the important thing being not that you are here, but that we are. There’s an almost hyper-reality to it. You can read the pulse in the neck of a person one hundred meters away, even as you can’t quite believe what your eyes are seeing.

Three days, two nights and one “Asante sana” later, the crowds were once again out on the streets. This time, it was the celebrations that had moved to another level. And once again, cricket found itself, oddly, at the center of it all. The Rising Stars were playing their next match at Harare Sports Club when news started to spread of Mugabe’s resignation, kicking off a nationwide street party.

“It was probably just after 4:30 pm when we started hearing the noises and everything,” a player told me. “I actually didn’t know exactly what was happening. You could just hear cars outside on the road, hooting, people making noise, shouting, singing and everything.”

The team changing rooms at HSC are housed in a multistory building on the northern side of the ground, sitting next to the gabled pavilion that is a throwback to the facility’s colonial origins. Looking out from the team balcony, on your right are concrete grandstands, beyond which stretches the rolling green felt of the Royal Harare Golf Club. To your left, behind a row of enormous fir trees and high walls patrolled by the presidential guard, is State House. In front of you lies the hallowed ground of the cricket oval, lined with jacaranda trees and a pair of floodlight towers. Beyond, the distinctive curved penthouses of the Northfields apartment complex overlook the ground, and two of the city’s major arteries intersect: Fourth and Josiah Tongogara Streets.

“I remember watching the scenes from the balcony outside the change-rooms at Sports Club,” the same player continued. “You could just see people waving flags. People singing. People dancing on top of their cars, or on top of someone else’s car. That day was just . . . it was historic in its own way.”

“Obviously, there were distractions from outside,” another player explained. “People were on the streets. It wasn’t easy, but I had to concentrate on the game and put myself into a position where I’m focused on the game, not on what’s happening out there. There was a lot of noise, mate, I promise you. People were singing out there. It felt more like something rowdy from high school, you know what I’m saying? It was quite an experience.”

“I was sitting upstairs in the Sports Club changing room, and we could see the people on the other side of the wall, on the road,” yet another player remembered. “You could see everyone marching past. I vividly remember that. You could see everyone.”

“The coach managed to get us to concentrate on the game at hand, and keep that out of our minds. But it was tough. Our country was changing before our eyes. It was a bizarre experience. No other words to describe it. It’s nice to see people unite. We were fielding at one point, and I remember a couple of the other team going up to the wall, standing on the wall and looking over into the crowds of people, joining and then coming back. You could hear the people outside. Singing and shouting. Something you won’t forget.”

Across town, another cricket match was taking place in a setting every bit as evocative as Harare Sports Club. While HSC sits next door to State House, Takashinga Cricket Club (CC) in Highfields is adjacent to the Zimbabwe Grounds, where a succession of epochal political rallies have been held over the years. It was here that Bishop Abel Muzorewa, desperate as the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia experiment was crumbling, held a three-day rally in an attempt to shore up support for his government. A year later, in early 1980, it was here that Mugabe, returning from exile in Mozambique, held the “Star Rally” months before his political party, Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front, swept to power in the country’s first-ever elections. The Zimbabwe Grounds were the setting for the chaos and violence that followed the heavy-handed dispersal of an opposition rally in March 2007. And in November 2017, a crowd to rival any that had come before gathered here to march to town in support of calls for Mugabe to step down and, a couple of days later, to celebrate his resignation. The Zimbabwe Grounds have played a pivotal role in the political life of the nation, and Takashinga CC has been equally crucial to the evolution of Zimbabwean cricket over the last quarter century, producing a slew of talented players and several national captains.

On the day that Mugabe resigned, Takashinga CC was hosting a Logan Cup match between the Mountaineers and the Mashonaland Eagles. Mountaineers captain Donald Tiripano won the toss, and his team was in the field when the news started to spread.

“It was strange,” remembers Sibanda, who also played in that game. “I can’t put it into words exactly. But when you’re on the field, you’re trying to concentrate on the game itself. There were some whispers and talking about what was happening off the field, that does happen, it’s normal. But we just played the game.”

Eagles opening batsman Cephas Zhuwao was in the form of his life that season, and his bolt into Zimbabwe’s World Cup Qualifier squad started with a string of audacious innings in domestic cricket. On this morning, he launched into the Mountaineers’ bowling attack, thrashing 46 of the 52 runs scored in the first hour of the game. By the lunch interval, he was on 77 not out, with 10 fours and three enormous sixes. But his fireworks on the field were nothing compared to the bacchanalia of the goings-on outside.

Image credit Jekesai Njikizana © iZimPhoto.

“The noise was there, you could certainly hear what was going on outside the Takashinga ground,” says Sibanda. “There were cars hooting, people making noise. Celebrating. It did happen. In other cases, when things like that happen, you might feel very much threatened, like, something’s going to happen, something is going to blow off here. But at this time, it didn’t feel like that. At all. You didn’t sense danger. People were just like, hey, something new is happening here. But, you know, we might as well just carry on.”

I was on the other side of the city, in the house where I grew up, when the news of the resignation started to spread. A man ran down the street holding a flag aloft, announcing the news and calling for everyone to come outside. I don’t remember where I was, exactly. On the verandah, perhaps. In the lounge, maybe. Drinking a cup of tea, almost definitely.

Just another Tuesday in Harare, a city homebrewed in rumor and hearsay. Tangible truth can be hard to locate here. Information comes second- or third-hand, from a friend’s cousin’s business partner, who knows the brother of an important so-and-so. And so it was with the coup that by any other name would smell just as fishy. But the joy writ on all those faces? That was real. The feeling of togetherness? Real. The rumble of the power of the people was as real as rolling thunder, and real, too, the hope that we all felt. Hope and optimism, despite the present difficulties.

Hope takes on a particular hue in Zimbabwe, a faith in the unseen and, perhaps, even the impossible. Consider the expression “hope against hope”—to have hope, even when that which we hope for is unlikely ever to happen—and you will start getting close to the Zimbabwean version. Any Zimbabwean cricket fan will be able to tell you all about it. And who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations. As it was promised; so shall your descendants be. But when?

“Obviously, we all had hope,” remembers a cricketer who played in that game at Takashinga. “The situation in Zimbabwe at the time wasn’t the best of situations, so you know when everyone is not happy, and then there is that light at the end of the tunnel, you do have hope. So I’ll speak mainly for the young people that I played with during those times. We were very hopeful. We were excited as well. Change is hard, yes, but sometimes when you’re living in the worst conditions, you hope for change, no matter how change would come to you. You don’t know how the change is going to turn out, but you’re still excited to see some changes. You just hope that it is change for the better.”

One is necessarily cynical about the motives and movements of the powerful. In November, we were fistbumping soldiers in the street. By the following August, soldiers were shooting people dead in those same streets. If anything, those heady days in November 2017, and the days since, have shown the locus of real power in Zimbabwe. But they have also shown something else. Even if only for a moment, Zimbabweans heard the rumor of freedom, and hope spread like wildfire. Hope persists.

“After the game, when we were driving off, I’d never seen so many Zimbabweans happy like that,” remembers one young Rising Star. “We drove from Harare Sports Club to where we were staying, and all you could see was people singing, dancing, everything, just people with flags and all that. So that was a different experience. Strange times. I’d never seen so many people just happy like that, all over the streets. Everyone just looked so free and happy. The scenes were amazing to witness.”

“Zimbabweans were happy. People were happy. People were excited. It was really good to see people getting together, you know. I think it had been a while since Zimbabweans had actually celebrated together like that. But yeah, the cricket went on. The cricket went on.”

Further Reading

What next for Zimbabwe?

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