Make sure you tell everybody about Zimbabwe,’ said the lady at our block of flats in suburban Harare as we set off on the long journey to the Eastern Highlands and another match, this time at Mutare. We are a ramshackle and elderly cricket team, though we have pulled in a couple of youthful ringers, one an Oxford Blue and another a former Test-match 12th man.
But it is a long time since a real England team toured this country — a few ODIs in 2004 I think. Gordon Brown blocked a tour of England by Zim in 2008, and I am told that David Cameron personally made sure that no England side came here. Understandably, perhaps, Cameron felt that a tour would offer some endorsement to Robert Mugabe, though he had no such reservations about doing deals with Saudi Arabia or China.
Back in Mutare, a cheetah’s leap away from the Mozambique border, we play a brisk T20 game at one of the most beautiful grounds I have seen. We are sharing turf where Sir Ian Botham and Basil D’Oliveira once walked (and no doubt drank too). In the corner families are having a barbecue, the parents of the England Test cricketer Gary Ballance among them. Against us are a scratch side of farmers, doctors and business guys— ‘We haven’t played for five years so we had to dig our kit out from the back of the loft.’ But there are a couple of former Zim internationals — ‘Oh just a few ODIs,’ they say — and we duly rip defeat from the jaws of victory.
This is a close-knit cricketing world — Graeme Hick’s mum and dad came to see our match at the Harare Club, and everyone talks in awe of players like Ballance and Surrey’s brilliant Curran boys. But it is precarious: there were riots just down the road when we played the RhoDocs in Harare, and there is a parallel crisis in the country’s cricket.
But more club sides need to come here too. Honestly, English clubs are mad to stay away. The climate is perfect — think of the best English summer’s day ever, and multiply by five; the welcome extraordinary, the landscape out of this world, and the cricket at a very high level. And they love this journal too: there were several copies in our local Harare supermarket and up in Matare they say, ‘It’s The Spectator that keeps us sane.’
It is not just the whites who are involved. I talk to Kenyon Ziehl, the enlightened and crusading former Zim selector, who is trying to bring street cricket to disadvantaged black kids in the outlying regions. Kenyon tells me about the growing interest among the youngsters, the links they are developing with Cape Town, the Aussie generosity that has just brought a new ‘Sir Donald Bradman Pavilion’ to Kwekwe. But there is still a desperate need for sponsors — they stay away for obvious reasons. ‘There’s a huge natural talent here; it mustn’t go to waste,’ he says.
We love sport for its drama and entertainment, but there’s much more to it than that. It doesn’t just reflect social change (look at football since the war), it drives it (look at cricket in southern Africa). The history of sport doesn’t just explain how games became what they are today, but it reveals a central thread of the modern world — sport, after all, has been one of the key agents as well as the beneficiary of globalisation.
Sport might be a meaningless distraction, but it needs to be taken seriously. And sports history is crucial to our understanding. Now — full disclosure, he is a good friend of mine — Ed Smith, the former cricketer and prolific writer and broadcaster, has picked up the challenge and set up a new MA in the history of sport that begins in London in October, as part of the University of Buckingham. With guest lectures by Mervyn King, Mike Brearley and a host of other heroes of mine, I’m tempted to sign up myself.