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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 13:35 GMT
Brave cricketers risk Mugabe's wrath
Andy Flower (l) and Henry Olonga (r)
They are two of Zimbabwe's most influential players

Zimbabwe cricketers Henry Olonga and Andy Flower knew that they were taking a great risk by making a public protest against the government of Robert Mugabe.

Olonga has already been suspended by his club, Takashinga for wearing a black armband during the Namibia match but that is the least of their worries.

As the statement they released just before taking to the field said:

I hope that by our stand, people will be inspired to follow suit

Henry Olonga
"People have been murdered, raped, beaten and had their homes destroyed because of their beliefs and... many of those responsible have not been prosecuted."

While such high-profile people are unlikely to be physically attacked in the middle of the Cricket World Cup, Mr Mugabe and his supporters have long memories.

Certainly, their cricketing careers - in Zimbabwe at least - are in jeopardy.

The Zimbabwe Cricket Union, whose patron is cricket fan Robert Mugabe, is already considering what action to take against them for breaching its "non-political" stance.

And it will be interesting to see how many black armbands, if any, are worn during Zimbabwe's next match.

Ruined plans

Mr Mugabe will have been livid when he heard of the protest, which has ruined his careful plans of a propaganda victory over both the opposition and the UK at the Cricket World Cup.

Armed policeman on the cricket pitch
The authorities have taken extra security precautions

Security is extremely tight around the Harare Sports Club, which is just across the road from Mr Mugabe's residence, in a bid to outmanoeuvre those in the England team trying to use safety fears as a pretext for not playing in Harare.

Sports clubs have received warnings from government supporters to close during Zimbabwe's cricket matches, in order to get as many fans as possible to the ground after the opposition had called for a boycott.

And the police have said no political slogans, songs, placards, dress or other "artefact associated with political parties" would be allowed at cricket venues.

Loud cheers

But despite this, the cricketers' action has brought attention back to "the death of democracy" in Zimbabwe.

And the statement is far more powerful, coming from the first black player in the national team, Henry Olonga.

MDC activist in hospital
This man had MDC carved in his back for supporting the opposition

Both players received loud cheers every time they bowled or batted, further adding to Mr Mugabe's embarrassment.

The government mouthpiece, The Herald newspaper, noted that the two were "able to express themselves without any harassment or intimidation".

But the police would have handed out instant justice to anyone making similar statements from the crowd.

'Restore sanity'

Olonga says he is ready to pay the price of his action and accepted that he and Flower may now be in physical danger.

"We'll have to deal with whatever repercussions come along our way as best we can but we believe in the greater good," he told the BBC.

Letter sent to sports clubs
Mugabe supporters have ordered sports clubs to close during matches

And Olonga also called on other Zimbabweans to overcome their fears and stand up for what they believe.

"The more people hesitate, the more people hold back, the less we can achieve to bring about a restoration of sanity and dignity to the nation of Zimbabwe."

"I hope that by our stand, people will be inspired to follow suit," he said.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has been charged with treason for making a similar statement.

The charges, carrying a possible death sentence, were eventually dropped but Mr Mugabe's advisors will no doubt be examining the statement released by Olonga and Flower extremely carefully to see what action they could take.

But they may do nothing for the time being, to avoid any further public relations gaffes during the rest of the Cricket World Cup.

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See also:

10 Feb 03 | England
11 Feb 03 | Zimbabwe
10 Feb 03 | England
27 Jan 03 | Europe
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