Paid price for standing up to Mugabe, don’t miss cricket much: Henry Olonga

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Henry Olonga has exchanged the cricket pitch for the musical stage in Adelaide, Australia, where he is now based with his family

Adelaide – A black tweed coat, a woolen hat, spectacles and a leather bag in hand, former Zimbabwe pacer Henry Olonga walked into the Adelaide Oval looking like a professor teaching at the University of Adelaide across the river Torrens.

On a day when Zimbabwe lost to the Netherlands in the T20 World Cup, Olonga spoke about what the national team is doing, even though he is leading a life far away from the cricket field, which once gave him name and fame. Olonga wasn’t a cricketing great, not even Zimbabwe’s best during the golden era of the country’s cricket, but the beaded hair, a slinging action and a mean bouncer to get Sachin Tendulkar out on a lifeless Sharjah track made him a household name in India. Not to forget his five-for at the Grace Road against India in the 1999 World Cup.

“I am a singer now. There is a lot of music in my life. I just did a couple of shows last Friday. My first solo performance without our band. It was just me and the audience,” Olonga told PTI, sitting in an Adelaide coffee shop. “Post cricket, I did a lot of things, I played for Lashings XI along with the great Sachin Tendulkar for a couple of matches. VVS Laxman also played. I did a few commentary gigs many moons back,” Olonga said, recollecting what his life was 15 years back. He is happily settled in one of Australia’s quietest cities — Adelaide — with his family.

“Life then kind of took me to different directions. I have two daughters, elder one soon to be 12 and younger one is 10. My wife is an Australian citizen and I have applied for Australian citizenship too. Hope to get it sometime soon. “And once I qualify, you never know, you might see me on athletics track. Throwing javelin,” he said, laughing out loud as a reference to his slinging action which got him called for chucking during his debut Test series in Pakistan back in 1995.

Leaving international cricket at 27

The lasting memory of Olonga in a Zimbabwe jersey was the 2003 World Cup when he and Andy Flower wore black arm-bands in one of the games as a protest against the Robert Mugabe-led government’s policies and “mourning the death of democracy in the country”. Olonga was against the Mugabe government’s decision of seizing farm lands from white community. In fact, Olonga’s protest back then was criticized by erstwhile Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Mayo, who termed him “Uncle Tom with black skin and a white mask”. It was a reference to the most iconic literary character ‘Uncle Tom’ from novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852.

Olonga announced his retirement from international cricket after Zimbabwe’s final game in the 2003 World Cup at the age of 26 when he was in the prime years of his career

“I had to leave everything that I had built for myself and my family in Zimbabwe. But that is the price you pay to stand up to a dictator like Robert Mugabe,” he said, still feeling the same about Mugabe. “The fall-out of my protest was that I got death threats and I had to leave Zimbabwe. I don’t look back too much to my life in Zimbabwe. I look back to my new life,” Olonga said, remembering the time when the government of the day had charged him with treason.

Former Zimbabwe pacer, Henry Olonga stunned the cricketing world with his singing prowess on Tuesday night. (Source: Twitter/henryolonga)
He had taken exile in England for close to a decade before shifting to Australia with his wife Tara and their two young children. There are scars of leaving one’s own country but Australia has given him so much to look forward to. “I have various ventures of mine. I do a lot of music and I am also into art. I do public speaking (after dinner) and do my music videos. “May be a bit of acting. That keeps me quite busy at the moment but honestly, I don’t look behind much. No point dwelling on bygones,” said the fan of American singer and lyricist Josh Groban.

Memories of Tendulkar and Indian fans

Olonga believes that his beaded hair and colourful get-up made him a package, and the Tendulkar dismissal at Sharjah just added to the intrigue. “I was a colourful player. I had a funny hair (beaded) and I still have a funny hair now. I played with passion. I wasn’t the most accurate bowler. I think on my day, I could be effective and that’s why people remember me. “I do remember some of my cricket playing days. There was a good day when I bounced Tendulkar out and there was a bad day when he dominated me in the final (tri-series in Sharjah 1998). What I enjoyed was the competitive spirit of cricket.”

Zimbabwe were a good side but we didn’t win much

Olonga played 80 international games for Zimbabwe which included 30 Tests (68 wickets) and 50 ODIs (58 wickets). Nothing extraordinary and he doesn’t even make any tall claims about his cricketing career. “International cricket was always very difficult. Certain aspects are very rewarding. If you won, that was great. We had a good team – Heath Streak, Flower brothers, Neil Johnson, Murray Goodwin, Paul Strang, Guy Whittal, but if I am honest, even then we were not winning a lot.

“You talk about taking rough with the smooth. There was lot of rough playing for Zimbabwe, we weren’t paid that well. It was a fantastic team and we were one of the best fielding units, we believed, at various World Cups, very similar to what this team is doing.” The era in which he played for Zimbabwe, it was very difficult to win matches, let alone tournaments.

“We played in a fantastic era where Australia were the best team, there was a very good Indian team and Pakistanis were a great side too – Wasim and Waqar, Saeed Anwar, Inzamam, it was difficult to go on and win a tournament against these kind of sides.”

When you see money in cricket, you do stop and think

Olonga, at times, thinks about how much cricket has gained commercially in last 15 years with the advent of T20 and the kind of opportunities former players have to laugh their way to the bank. “Seeing what’s happening around gives me food for thought. Like a lot of emotion and nostalgia goes into an event like this. I never had regret like ‘Oh, I wish that I would have played in this era’, but I do love the spectacle. It has the buzz and the passion,” he signed off.

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