Cricket World Cup: Olonga delivers songs of praise

A new voice for Zimbabwean cricket has remodelled his approach and cast aside his wayward ways; A swinger turned singer feels his side should rely on instinct in the Super Six.
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The Independent Online
HENRY OLONGA was staying with his Zimbabwean team about a mile from Lord's early last week. But the lure of the spiritual home of cricket was easily resisted. Olonga and the Zimbabweans will go to Lord's on Wednesday, on their own terms, by right not by invitation or as gawping tourists. And they could yet be back in two weeks. The thought is not entirely fanciful. Victory against New Zealand at Headingley today would take the unfancied Zimbabweans to the verge of a semi-final place, and no team who have comprehensively outplayed the South Africans can be taken lightly thereafter.

It might not be quite the charismatic finale anticipated by the tournament organisers, but the prospect of Henry Olonga, classical singer, actor, public schoolboy, born-again Christian, convicted chucker and, on his better days, considerable fast bowler, steaming in from the Pavilion End will appeal to those with a well- developed sense of irony.

England have so far resolutely refused to offer Zimbabwe a home Test or one-day international series, an omission which disappoints the older generation within an experienced Zimbabwe side. Olonga has other things to worry about. "I just play wherever I'm sent," he says.

Olonga is cricket's Chris Eubank. Same gift of the gab, same studied manner of speech, same ebullience. Same heart too. He begins sentences with phrases like: "Let me say this." You can imagine him sporting a monocle and gold-topped cane. The Zimbabweans can't quite figure him out. There is an air of the dilettante about Olonga which is appealing to the outsider. Cricket is not the alpha and omega to a character who will render a quick chorus from the Gondoliers or an aria from Handel's Messiah in a fine tenor voice or talk vivaciously about the prospect of full-time ministry once his cricket career is finished.

But no one who is called for throwing on his Test debut then returns to international cricket less than 10 months later with a remodelled action can be accused of lacking commitment. Olonga's career was almost stillborn. Now, at the age of 22, he is an integral, if scatty, member of one of the top six international one-day sides in the world, the one member of a generally anonymous Zimbabwean team who will attract instant recognition.

Today, his orange-tinged dreadlocks are wrapped up inside a flamboyant cricket cap and he is trying to put his finger on the extraordinary inconsistencies of his own team. He thinks he has found the answer, though doubts whether his team-mates will listen. "They think I'm a bit of an idiot," he laughs. But victories against India, courtesy of three wickets in the final over by Olonga, and South Africa instantly lifted Zimbabwe from tournament also-rans to favourites for the last four.

"Let me say this," Olonga begins. "For all the other games there was a lot of nervous tension, but for the South Africa game I remember saying to [Mpumelo] Mbangwa on the bus, 'Look how quiet everyone is'. For once we were told to relax and enjoy the game.

"For previous games, we'd had a huge dissection of the game, sat and watched videos of their batsmen, talked through their bowlers. Hey, this time there was a very real chance we would be going home, so there was no point in getting on about all the little ins and outs of their team." Winning the toss for the first time in four games, a good start and a wicket first ball when South Africa batted. "All of a sudden," recalls Olonga, "it seemed as if it would be our day."

A good day to balance the bad. There have not been many. Olonga recalls a day against Sri Lanka. "Ten overs for 50, three catches dropped and I sat in the changing-room at the end of the day and thought, 'This is a horrible game, why am I playing it?' It wasn't surprising I was hanging my head. I'd played six Tests, taken two wickets, been called for throwing, been expensive when I bowled and yet still been picked."

Olonga was called for throwing by the home umpire Ian Robinson on 2 February 1995, on the third morning of the inaugural Test against Pakistan. His opening over in Test cricket the previous evening had been eventful enough. Four wides first ball, a bouncer second and a gloved catch down the leg- side to take the wicket of Saeed Anwar off the third. Olonga had been called while playing for the President's XI against the touring team, and never should have been risked for the Test.

But the Plumtree High School boy, Zambian-born, the son of a doctor and resolutely middle-class, was an important symbol for the future of a game dominated by the white middle-class. So he played, received a standing ovation when he took the field and became the first player to be called for throwing since the Australian Ian Meckiff in 1963-64. Not quite the publicity the authorities had anticipated.

That evening, one of the respected elders of Zimbabwe cricket told Olonga that no one who had been called for throwing had ever come back. Olonga wonders why he said that, spite or motivation. Olonga took it as the latter and went to the Dennis Lillee Academy in Madras to overhaul his action.

"I used to be a swing bowler in my early days at school, then one of my coaches said, 'See what happens if you bowl as fast as you can'. I didn't have a suspect action all the time, only when I tried to bowl really fast. At the time I was called, I was ashamed. I thought I'd let people down. I was the answer to the problem. People were crying out for a black player to get in the side and then the answer comes along and causes more problems.

"But looking back now, I wouldn't change a thing. It made me do a lot of soul- searching and, for the first time in my life, it made me really work at something. I hadn't met too much disappointment, then there was failure staring me in the face. I couldn't think of people saying about me for the rest of my life, 'Oh yes, there's Henry Olonga, he was called for throwing in his first Test and was never heard of again'."

Olonga returned to the Test side in New Zealand in early 1996. He studied videos of Allan Donald, analysed his delivery stride, his wrist action and his arm co-ordination, but he was still uncomfortable with his rhythm when he bowled his first over to Stephen Fleming. "I didn't bowl too well and he made me look stupid," he says.

There are still too many bad days for the captain's liking, days when Olonga - and his team-mates - wonder whether singing wouldn't be a more profitable career. He was the first black Gondolier in Zimbabwe, playing Marco in the school production of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic at the age of 14, and still sings with the Praise and Worship Band in his home church in Bulawayo.

Last Sunday, he celebrated victory over South Africa at a little Fellowship church in London. "God's told me that within my music and within my cricket he'll be able to use me," he says. "At the moment, cricket is one, singing is two, but I think that might change quite soon. My singing hasn't taken off yet, but I like to think that might be the career I get most satisfaction out of. Appealing's not good for the throat, anyway."

If Zimbabwe are in gambling mood, Olonga will be in the side at Headingley today. If not, the crowd will get less entertainment for their entrance fee. Olonga believes Zimbabwe should rely on instinct rather than heavy preparations. "Having these lengthy team talks and dissecting everything and all of a sudden the pressure is back on. We play better when we go in not with a lackadaisical attitude but with a quiet confidence," he says. It is a reflection of Olonga's own well-lived sporting philosophy.