The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.

Photo by Alessandro Bogliari on Unsplash.

Over the weekend, news surfaced of the critical illness of Zimbabwean cricketing legend, Heath Streak, who is battling advanced cancer. News was first shared on social media by former Minister of Education, Sports, Arts and Culture, David Coltart. Since then, members of the general public have taken to Twitter in particular to share their support for Streak’s recovery. A prominent figure in Zimbabwe’s golden cricketing era (spanning the late 1990s into the early 2000s), and then later a national team coach, it is no surprise that the all-rounder’s health is eliciting such concern.

Streak, aged 49, made his one-day international (ODI) debut in November 1993 against South Africa and followed this up with a test debut the following month in a Zimbabwean tour of Pakistan. Zimbabwe had entered international cricket in 1992 and the early team featured batsmen Dave Houghton, Alistair Campbell, the Flower brothers (Andy and Grant) as well as all-rounder, Eddo Brandes. A few years later, the leg spinning all rounder, Paul Strang (in 1994), and fast bowler Henry Olonga (in 1995) would also join the line-up. Some years after this, talents such as Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson would also join the team; returnees to Zimbabwe having previously migrated to Australia and South Africa respectively.

While Zimbabwean cricketing teams have boasted a fair number of all-rounders over the years, it is Streak who generally stands out among them. He remains Zimbabwe’s all-time leading wicket taker in both Test and ODI cricket with 216 and 239 wickets respectively, both at an average under 30 (28.14 in Tests and 29.82 in ODIs). He is also the only Zimbabwean to have completed the double of 1000 Test runs and 100 Test wickets, and 2000 ODI runs and 200 ODI wickets.

At the height of his talents, comparisons could be made between Streak and other equally exciting allrounders, such as South African Lance Klusener. In Zimbabwe’s famous 1999 Cricket World Cup win over South Africa, it was Klusener (largely credited with batting his team into the semi-finals of that tournament) who remained not out on 52. Chasing an achievable total of 233 (featuring highest scores by Johnson, Goodwin, and Andy Flower), Zimbabwe bowled out their famous rivals for a meager 185 runs. An inspired Streak bowling spell had claimed the invaluable wickets of Mark Boucher and Jonty Rhodes, and the Rhodesia-born fast bowler Steve Elworthy. Later, in Streak’s time as head coach of the national team, Klusener would serve as batting coach for the Zimbabwean team.

Within the overwhelming whiteness of both African cricketing teams, Streak and Klusener particularly stood out in their sides for their fluency in local languages. Klusener is a fluent Zulu speaker who could often be heard through the stumps microphone sharing covert batting and bowling tactics in the vernacular with the Xhosa-speaking Makhaya Ntini, South Africa’s first black player. Ntini would later serve as a bowling coach for Zimbabwe. Streak is a native Ndebele speaker who often offered post-match interviews to local media news outlets in the language. In a comical 1996 advertisement for a local insurance company, Streak and his father, Denis (a former Rhodesian cricketer), converse in Ndebele. The advert ends with the two exclaiming “Mayibabo,” one of those vernacular expressions that cannot be adequately translated into English. As Firdos Moonda notes, “It’s not just that Streak can speak and listen, or ask and answer but he is fully fluent in the language. He jokes in Ndebele and knows its nuances.”

Zimbabwean cricket has become more of a national sport in recent years. But the composition of the earliest teams of those times rarely reflected the demographics of a black majority nation with most national players being white and generally coming from farming and private school backgrounds. Liam Brickhill notes that during the land reform process at the turn of century, virtually all white players in the Zimbabwe team were connected to the farming community and therefore experiencing its impacts. More than 70% of the Streaks’ family land was repossessed by the Zimbabwean government. Eventually, this would lead to a massive rupture in the relationship between core white players and indigenizing Zimbabwean cricket.

In 2000, Streak became the Zimbabwean team captain but resigned amid tensions with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union board over payments and proposed team quotas based on race. He returned to Zimbabwe’s captaincy in 2002 but faced criticism from the same quarters for not taking and making more political stances favorable to the board and government. It was during Streak’s captaincy at the 2003 Cricket World Cup that Olonga and Flower wore black armbands over their uniforms in silent protest over the worsening social and political conditions in the nation. Streak was again criticized for not taking strong enough measures against the protest. He was fired from the captaincy in 2004.

The 21-year-old Tatenda Taibu would replace him in the role. A product of the Takashinga Cricket Club in Highfield, one of Harare’s oldest high-density suburbs, his ascent to national leadership represented a bridging, of sorts, over the chasms of race and class in Zimbabwean cricket. Other black players and Highfield natives who would make it into the national team included Vusi Sibanda, Elton Chigumbura, Stuart Matsikenyeri, and Prosper Utseya. Another Highfield-raised player to enter the national fold was Hamilton Masakadza, who in 2001 scored a century on debut (days shy of his 18th birthday) against the West Indies. All five were also products of the public Churchill High School, which now-retired South African rugby player Tendai Mtawarira is also an alumnus of.  Schisms within Zimbabwe’s education system are still quite palpable today. Streak, alongside other prominent cricketers including Strang and the Whittall brothers, is a product of the elite Falcon College. The school was recently trending on social media news for its termly school fees, priced at US$4,500 at the black-market exchange rate to the US dollar, and at over $10,500 at the bank rate.

By 2004, many white players including the Flower brothers and Campbell had left the international fold. Streak retired from international cricket in 2005. The new era of cricketing under Taibu’s leadership brought with it a sharp shift in the composition of the team, but also in the audiences now engaging with the sport. In Harare, contemporary conversations about class divisions in the city are sometimes referenced through the concept of “the Samora Machel Divide.” Samora Machel Avenue is one of Harare’s main thoroughfares and is seen as the demarcation line between the more affluent Harare North and the working-class Harare South (which includes suburbs like Highfield). To get to Harare Sports Club, which sits on the fringes of Harare North, one has to cross Samora Machel Avenue. Many have, and continue to, to watch a sport they previously had no influential representatives for.

Streak returned to the national team, first as a bowling coach in 2009, and then as a supporting coach in 2010. Grant Flower and Campbell (and other former players) would also return to the team in administrative roles. In 2016, Streak became the national team coach. His tenure was shaky and saw Zimbabwe fail to qualify for the 2019 Cricket World Cup. Streak was forced to resign.

A few years later, in 2021, Streak became a figure of controversy after being banned from cricket for eight years by the International Cricket Council for his role in match fixing in various leagues, including the Indian Premier League. Streak accepted the ban but refuted the claims. Coltart, who sent out a tweet offering his solidarity to Streak in the wake of the news, received widespread criticism for this, with many questioning if similar solidarity would have been offered to a black player. An unnamed 263Chat author pushes back against Moonda’s essay about Streak, as well as Coltart’s depictions of him in it, offering similar critique to that offered by social media users.

Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet even within that, there remain few white Zimbabwean sporting figures able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides. Another such figure (who has also become more controversial in recent times) is the decorated Olympic swimmer, Kirsty Coventry, who is currently serving as Minister of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation in Zimbabwe’s government. Regardless of whatever personal opinions Streak may elicit, he is an integral part of Zimbabwe’s cricketing story and history.

Further Reading

Beyond the boundary

South African cricket is currently the subject of TRC-style hearings into the racism and nepotism in the game. It makes for riveting TV, but focuses too much on individual instances of racism and discrimination.