Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: What next now exile over?

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Zimbabwe's re-emergence as a cricket nation throws up an interesting conundrum - cricket is either leading the way for change there or it's just a PR stunt by a murderous regime dedicated to maintaining its own presence.

The question is important for New Zealand as not only did we play them in the World Cup this week but the Black Caps are supposed to be travelling to Robert Mugabe's implacable dictatorship to play a test series.

Zimbabwe is ending its self-imposed exile from test cricket after the game there imploded under the corruption and the political shadows cast over it.

They are due to play Bangladesh in May; New Zealand and Pakistan are supposed to follow.

On the one hand, Zimbabwe - who were beaten by the Black Caps at the cricket World Cup yesterday - have players of colour back in their team and managing the country's cricket. 'Players of colour' means white, of course.

On the other hand, Robert Mugabe's vicious hold on the country persists.

Soldiers were on the streets this week in a show of force designed to forestall any citizen uprisings such as those that have transformed the political and social shape of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Zimbabwe security forces arrested and imprisoned a group of 46 people who were watching a video - a video, for Pete's sake - of the civil unrest in North Africa. Zimbabwean citizens have had previous encounters with the military and police. Many of them face a charge of treason, which can carry the death penalty.

Zimbabweans know from personal experience that systemic brutality is never far under the surface; making an uprising in Zimbabwe perhaps more unlikely than in North Africa. Zimbabwe was supposed to host the Million Citizen March on Wednesday (NZT) to bring the same sort of civil uprising to Mugabe's odious rule. It didn't happen.

But it's OK - there are white folks back in the cricket team. To be fair, Zimbabwe's Minister of Sport, David Coltart, has done a great job in re-structuring and revitalising cricket there, ending old accusations of racism and dubious administration.

In April 2004, Heath Streak was sacked as captain and, when 15 white players lost their jobs for backing Streak, the ICC investigated the Zimbabwe Cricket Union on the grounds of racism.

Two players - Andy Flower (now coaching England) and Henry Olonga - had fled the country and remain in exile after criticising Mugabe's rule. The ICC found no wrongdoing in their racism inquiry - the cynical would suggest they were never going to - but, with so many stars of the game missing from their team, Zimbabwe removed themselves from the test arena.

However, they have done better in the limited over forms. Former Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie arrived in Zimbabwe along with South Africa paceman Allan Donald (now with the Black Caps as bowling coach) to help re-build domestic cricket last year. Streak is back, coaching the bowlers; Grant Flower the batsmen. Throughout Zimbabwe's test exile, the team have continued to play one-day international and Twenty20 cricket, with English coach Alan Butcher leading them to victories over India, Sri Lanka and West Indies and a series win over Ireland (who beat England at the World Cup this week).

It all sounds highly promising and the ICC have made warm and gushy noises. But, while cricket is happily re-building itself, not much else in Zimbabwe is. The grandly named "national unity" coalition government which saw Coltart named sports minister is an uneasy alliance between the opposition MDC party and Mugabe's Zanu-PF. There are now reports that Mugabe - the patron of Zimbabwe cricket - is trying to collapse the coalition to force a snap election, designed to pitch the 87-year-old (said now to have prostate cancer, which he denies) back into sole power.

Zimbabwe still has millions below the poverty line. Conspiracy theorists are positing that Mugabe would have liked an uprising, as it would have given him the chance to undo the coalition.

That could be one reason why it didn't happen. So, too, could the fact that the rallying call for the citizen march came from disgruntled Zimbabwean activists blogging on computers from England.

Such things need a groundswell on the ground - as happened in Tunisia when 26-year-old street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight; sparking the riots there. Beaten up by the police for selling fruit in the street, Bouazizi's fatal protest at being victimised for being poor and oppressed started the wave of uprisings against African dictators.

Yet Zimbabwe is in an even more desperate economic situation than Tunisia or Egypt.

The first two have grown their economies over the past decade - Tunisia by 5 per cent, with 13 per cent unemployment and life expectancy 74 and 78 for men and women respectively. Egypt's economy grew 7 per cent, unemployment is at 9 per cent and life expectancy 75 and 70 years.

In Zimbabwe, the economy has been estimated to have dipped by 30 per cent in the past decade; joblessness affects more than 90 per cent and life expectancy is 44 years.

The government are shrilly investigating the loss of US$300m that is not accounted for in government coffers. Some say it is being drained away as a 'war chest'.

Mugabe has reportedly sent crack soldiers to Libya to assist fellow despot Muammar Gaddafi and there is speculation that Zimbabwe could be Gaddafi's bolt-hole.

It's all decidedly suss and not really the ideal environment to which to send a cricket team. However, if we play them at the World Cup, we can hardly withdraw from a test tour there - and, to be fair, countries like Pakistan and others have human rights problems, too. Sport can have a healing effect ... as long as it's not being used to cover up something nasty.

- Herald on Sunday

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