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Guest column: A double life in sport, reporting and playing

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IN this special guest column exclusively for The NewsHawks, John Kelley – who spent the greater part of his journalism career in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe – puts together 70 years of sport and other activity, either through writing or taking part.

This review, written through vivid recall in a small flat on England’s south coast, was an adventure bursting with memories. Enock Muchinjo’s regular weekly column, HawkZone, will return next week for the first time this new year.

JOHN KELLEY 

My first attempt at journalism in sport was back in 1950 at the age of 19 on a 200-year-old English country newspaper, The Banbury Guardian. 

But I had been playing all kinds of sport three years before that, trying to achieve a worthwhile level. The event to be reported on was a village cricket final, and I was standing in for the newspaper’s sports editor. I was actually diverted from the middle of a printing apprenticeship. They were the days of hot metal. 

In football, I turned down a trial offer from Aston Villa, but accepted a 45-minute one from Coventry City, just for the experience. No way did I want to be a professional footballer. Playing out of position, I was made rather a fool of by a young Nigerian, name of Kalamazoo. I eventually, actually in middle life, reached a seven handicap at golf, plus several achievements off the course worth noting.

Since then, I have paid 50% attention to the quotation, “Your time is limited so don’t waste it living somebody else’s life.” In ignoring this advice for the other 50%, I have intruded professionally in lots of sporting, political and military lives on behalf of my desire to inform readers and listeners about those people who reached the pinnacle of their disciplines. Plus, a great deal on war, politics and much else. Golf, the world’s finest and most demanding sport, has occupied most of my leisure time, with mixed success, as well as a writer.

From 1950 until 1969, I was unknowingly preparing myself for Africa, where I would find sun and outgoing companions in great and rewarding quantities. Looking back, I relish that every move somehow directed me there.

During those early years, I was three years in the Royal Air Force on compulsory national service, mostly in Singapore at the tail-end of their emergency (they did not call it a war) against Chinese insurgents.

It was just outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaya’s capital, deep in a forest for training against ambushes, that I began to play golf. The course was around a jumble of fast-moving streams bordered by rough ground. I started with 11 air shots on the first tee. But I would not be beaten and have ceaselessly tried not to be beaten ever since. I subsequently played 147 golf courses on four continents and was lucky with two holes in one.

Back in England, I persuaded the “BG” owner to appoint me sports editor, which by happy chance was vacant. But there was catching up to be done and eventually I obtained the job of sports editor plus deputy editor of a newspaper in Sussex.

The high point of my 18 months there was to interview and spend an amusing time with a new pop group called “The Beatles”, who were recording their second hit, From Me To You. I also dabbled in snazzy headlines, one being “Hey Ho and Up She Rises” above a story about a local man who invented a lifeboat that could not sink.

The staid woman owner was not pleased – but the readers were. This led to a recall as group news editor, and so the “BG” saw me as printing apprentice, compositor, sports editor and group editor at different times.

During a holiday period, I was following South Africa’s Harold Henning and Hugh Boyle around Wentworth in the Daks tournament (a men’s clothing outfit). Henning’s caddie, Joe Canada, was always well behind. I told Henning I could do better than him, and after asking my handicap (12 at the time) I was engaged for a couple of events the following summer. I worked for him at the British Masters, Hillside, Southport and in two Open Championships, Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool. In the latter we came sixth. I wrote a big article about it for Golf Monthly magazine, my first nationally, and I still have a copy.

That was in 1964. I also caddied for Denis Hutchinson in two tournaments and for Vinnie Baker, who was some years later murdered on a Durban beach.

For the sake of salary improvement, I had two years as publicity officer with the Conservative Party. High points were a three-day tour with Enoch Powell and another with Edward Heath. These were in 1966. I drove Heath pretty fast through foggy Devon lanes trying to keep up with a cancelled helicopter schedule, with heart in mouth. 

But the call of journalism was too strong and in taking up a freelancing opportunity I at last found my true vocation. I was involved in some major stories: The death of 160 children as a coal sludge heap collapsed on their school, the Torrey Canyon oil tanker disaster, with a massive oil spill off Cornwall, the search for Ronnie Biggs, a Great Train Robber, and an attempted interview with Mandy Rice-Davies, an exotic part of the Profumo scandal.

 Also the infamous yachtsman Donald Crowhurst and his Atlantic Ocean suicide when in a round-the-world race, who I interviewed before he set off, and claimed daily record distances. And there was also a steady flow of soccer and rugby reporting against the clock for “the nationals.”

In 1969, my big break came through South Africa’s top yachtsman, Bruce Dalling, while he was taking part in the Observer newspaper-sponsored Single-Handed race from Plymouth to Nantucket. We became friends and he persuaded me to find work in South Africa. However, after several rejections, I ended up with an offering letter on behalf of the Rhodesia Herald. My new life in sport, in war, in politics and in all sorts of dramas, had begun.

I flew out on 8 July 1969, the coldest July day in England for many years.

I arrived at Harare’s international airport to be met by a happy Alan Peden, the Herald’s soccer writer, who spotted the golf clubs over my shoulder and knew he need not prepare another golf column for the reason that he knew next to nothing about the sport.

But it was mainly cricket that occupied me in those early days, as well as meeting up with officials and leading players from all the sports. My first big story was a cricket tour of South Africa against Currie Cup ‘B’ Section sides over a Christmas and New Year period. The clear and often stated objective was to beat them all so conclusively that the SA cricket authorities had no option but to place Rhodesia back in the ‘A’ section – facing up to Transvaal, Free State, Western Province and Natal the next season and hopefully beyond. 

Prominent in the squad captained by Ray Gripper were Springbok Jackie du Preez, big-hitting Howie Gardiner, Brian Davison – who became a Tasmania MP – and Duncan Fletcher, who was eventually England cricket supremo. Fletcher was massively and crudely criticised by the English press and when he made a coaching visit to Zimbabwe, he came across to me and said: “Hello John, I am not going to talk to you.” I said he should remember who his friends are.

However, the star of that critical tour and beyond was “mercenary” Mike Procter, the extraordinary South African all-rounder who scored three successive first-class centuries, at Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Kimberley and then immediately another three back home. He was thus one of only three players achieving six at first-class in a row in the entire history of cricket, the others being Donald Bradman and C. B. Fry. 

I wrote a big story about it for the Herald back page, but the duty editor of the day declined my offer of a front page item, then changed his mind, dragging me out of a cinema where I was watching “A Man For All Seasons” which was rather fitting.

I engaged Procter to write a weekly column for the Sunday Mail, but he never turned in any copy so I had to do it myself above his name. He always wanted “more tom” and eventually I sacked him. On one occasion Procter damaged his ankle quite badly and was confined in a hospital at Southerton. I went there to see him and establish when he would be able to return to play but was refused entry by a senior doctor who said:

“This is a sanctuary for the sick, Mr Kelley.” I was rather cross but it gave me a reportable quote.  Sanctuary for Mike Procter?

Having established myself in the sports world, I had been appointed sports editor of the Sunday Mail in 1973 and from there continued my career, but only for a short while. I was interrupted in June 1972 by a massive methane gas explosion at Wankie Mine No. 2 Colliery that killed 426 workers. 

The Bulawayo Chronicle reporting team had fouled up the story and severely damaged the newspaper group’s reputation by sending out a story that bodies were being taken out of the colliery. This was not the case. None ever were. The reporters and photographer (originator of their story) were withdrawn.

The Mail news editor, Chris Reynolds, and I were sent in for a double recovery, both of story and reputation, which we achieved. We also scooped the big international journalist contingent by discovering the mine’s decision one evening to seal off the colliery for ever as being much too dangerous for rescue teams. Later, I interviewed a visiting official of the British Coal Board, who said he would have closed the colliery long ago because it lacked stone dusting, a procedure designed to slow down explosions.

I was appointed news editor of The Herald in 1975, sport taking a back seat, but quit after a year or so following a lost salary dispute, whereupon I dived headlong into the world of international freelancing after firstly setting off to England to drum up business, sharing offices with Reg Shay at Frankel House.

I built up a client list of 23 media houses, writing many stories, also broadcasting and giving briefings, mainly to visiting journos. The list included the London Express group, ITV News, national news agencies of  Germany and China, Birmingham Mail, Irish Free Press, Los Angeles Times (facilities), Time Magazine on one occasion, national radio stations of Canada, ABC New York, Sweden, Australian commercial and even Hawaii. Every day’s work was up to 14 hours. I ate and drank on the run and eventually had to hire a secretary and a young journalist to assist. 

Zimbabwe was granted Test cricket status by the International Cricket Council in 1992 when Alwyn Pichanick and Peter Chingoka made a strong case in London, with Zimbabwe having beaten all other contending countries. But the team’s wheels came off very quickly and I was kept busy doing stories indicating the spectacular and dismaying decline.

Knocked over by Sri Lanka for a record 26 runs, general manager Vince Hogg was pushed around in his office by people claiming he and the groundsman had doctored the pitch. The India captain swore to me that they would never come again after they twice beat Zimbabwe by an innings and more than 200 runs – each match finishing inside two days.

Captain Heath Streak was sacked for suggesting batting order changes and made to pay at the gate next day. Batsman Dion Ebrahim’s career was ended when he claimed publicly that all Muttiah Muralitharan’s deliveries to him were illegal. Tatenda Taibu, with whom I became friendly, moved his family to a hotel for their safety after declaring he would never play under Chingoka again and been threatened. 

And so it went on and on in this vein, month after month, defeat after defeat, all also fully reported locally. The players’ rather volatile Greek attorney kept me fully informed. At one stage, a forensic financial examination was ordered by ICC. It was carried out by one accountant friend of the ZC administrators and the result was clearly a whitewash. Yet the ICC accepted it.

I covered Tests and ODIs for Associated Press and for Angence France-Presse at the same time, a mammoth task, specially when I had to shout long and loud at the ZCU staff for a phone or laptop connection. The scorekeeper appointed was usually unreliable. But I managed to get a decent job done. 

Eventually, Chingoka banned journalists from annual general meetings because of their hostile questions. He did not seem to realise that the procedure for AGMs is to invite journalists, but they do not ask questions from the floor.

To my astonishment, I had a call from ZCU asking if I would edit a new official cricket magazine, titled Powerplay.  I discovered I was only to be copy editor and the “editor-in-chief” was an inexperienced woman. However, I went ahead until they forgot to pay me and then I was gone.

Allow me to go back in time, to the early 1980s: One morning, I woke up with the notion to enter new territory and go into local broadcasting. The intention was to prepare and narrate a 13-part radio series and offered it for Radio One of ZBC. The head, Jimmy Robinson, offered me a dollar a minute, which I thought was rather funny and so did it gratis. Were there really people working in radio for that? 

The subject was the forthcoming 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and it was very successful. It all rather fell into place, including interviews with former world heavyweight champion Floyd Paterson, sent to Harare as “Olympic Ambassador”, as well as Zimbabwean MP Simba Makoni, a cabinet minister whose portfolio also included sports.  We also had a few words with President Canaan Banana.

Taking up lawn bowling at the age of 46, I had some modest successes. For example, as skip of the Mashonaland fours in a provincial tournament, achieving national singles runner-up from an entry list of more than 3 000, plus my team winning a national trips championship. I was also chairperson of Avondale Sports Club for two years. I wrote a weekly bowls column, but this was irritably shut down when I did not file anything through a Christmas and New Year break in the sport.

Some high moments in golf:  I was engaged by a British promotions company to write reports on a Johnny Walker-sponsored multi-tournament involving professionals from all over Africa, staged at Warren Hills, Wingate and Windsor Hotel Nairobi; granted honorary membership of Royal Harare, Warren Hills, Harare South and Mashonaland Seniors, elected life vice-president of Zimbabwe Golfing Ambassadors Society on the death of my predecessor, joint owner and editor for three years of The Zimbabwe Golfer magazine.

The magazine’s closure was eventually forced on us, after three years, by massive inflation when we were soon dealing in trillions of dollars and through declining advertising. But on the way, we published a major interview with Nick Price from his home in America, a large pull-out on Bulawayo golf and a continuing series featuring individual country clubs, a six-page feature on Zambian golf and another multi-page feature previewing a Zimbabwe Open championship.

AFP sports editor (English) Allan Kelly asked me if I would like to join his reporting team at golf Open Championships in England and Scotland. I was at Royal Birkdale and St Andrews. I also covered an Open at Royal Lytham St Anne’s for the South African Press Association.

I had to pay accommodation and travel costs, but it was well worth it for the experience. Open Championships are always attended by 700 journalists from 2 000 applications. So I passed muster on that.

It was all capped after such busy and rewarding years when receiving a “Lifetime Service to Golf” award by the Zimbabwe Golf Association. Unfortunately, they spelled my name wrongly on it and took three months to get it corrected. I was also asked to nominate two other winners. I chose national and junior coach Roger Baylis and posthumously Tim Price.

Through the years, I achieved several major exclusives in the wide and intense field of research and writing. I was known as “Lucky Kelley” because very often was just in the right place at the right time. Exclusives came along and they included:

*President Clifford Dupont withdrawing his patronage of the Lawn Tennis Association because they had pulled out of the Davis Cup when the country was under sanctions so that the organisers could proceed without them. Otherwise, Czechoslovakia would have declined to play, also the next drawn country and the next etc. He had previously told me at a State House beat-the-retreat ceremony that he would telephone personally, unheard of for a national president to do so.

 *When watching a tennis match against South Africa(Frewett and Mcmillan) at the City Sports Centre in Harare, I spotted a fire through an open entrance that could only be petrol-diesel on a big scale. My wife and I sped down to Birmingham Road to find the national fuel depot engulfed in flames. We got there just before roadblocks were in place and I was able to file an early detailed story.  I was called up to the police reserve, patrolling the industrial sites and becoming unpopular for calling the patrols “operation stable door!”

*I ignored a mass parachute jump of 500 Mozambique recruits in Dondo, Beira, when I heard that the supreme commander of Portuguese forces in Mozambique, General Kaulza D’Arriaga, was in his city office. I pestered and pestered for a one-to-one interview, eventually succeeding and then leading the Herald next day. D’Arriaga told me 10 000 more troops were scheduled in to deal with Frelimo “once and for all.” Not quite!

*I enjoyed an occasional beer with a certain MP.  He called off one of our meetings due to urgently required work at the airport. He discovered from traffic control that a second Viscount leaving Kariba had been shot down by ground-to-air missile with the loss of 51 lives, an atrocity claimed by Joshua Nkomo, who said he thought military chief General Peter Walls was on board. He was not. I was therefore hours ahead of my opposition with early details.

 *Through another MP contact, I was able to arrange a photo of Ian Smith’s cabinet gathering for their weekly meeting, something that had never been done before and considered impossible. Michael Nicholson of ITN was told of my arrangement and acted quickly.

*A Special Branch connection called me for a clandestine meeting in Churchill Avenue. He told me that the head of the army, General John Hickman, had been arbitrarily sacked by the Defence minister. Hickman was often accused of bad behaviour among farm wives. And so I knew about the sacking even before Prime Minister Bishop Abel Muzorewa.

*Finally (of this list anyway), I was undertaking a one-year contract in Hong Kong for the Journal of Commerce, New York, (1987), writing stories from the Pacific Rim about business and finance matters. Typical was a two-page feature for Flight Magazine on the booming Far East commercial air traffic. I attended a mining expo in China proper and in attendance was the senior Mining Politburo member and I pestered officials for an interview. It turned out, I was told afterwards, to be the first by a Politburo member granted to a Western journalist in 40 years. He apparently wanted to get some criticism of America off his chest.

I fought shy of interviewing Rhodesia leader Ian Smith. Too many times, I saw him ridicule journalists who attacked him. Smith was often criticised as a poor statesman, mainly for listening to the wrong people.

But he was a fierce, ruthless, and devastating debater. My only professional contacts with him were at the opening of the new Hostess Nicolle elephant research establishment at Sanyati (which I hope still exists) and at his home next to the Cuban embassy in Harare to talk about his sporting prowess at university, which was quite impressive.

I joined Chapman Golf Club, but quit after 18 years following an unfriendly AGM debate with the captain.

 Later, for a very different Chapman captain, I was invited to be guest speaker at his inaugural dinner. There were several such speaking invitations, including the annual Mashonaland seniors lunch where I was an honorary member.

I was also a fairly decent level bowler for more than 40 years. Districts (Harare East) skip, runner-up from over 3 000 entries in the national singles, I think it was in 1986 when it was necessary to win nine successive round matches to reach the final, winner of national trips, inter-club fours, Barclays “Champion of Champions” fours. Chairman for two years of Avondale Sports Club.

My frequent theme was life being a search for high points. I sponsor a monthly competition every year and I am otherwise often remaining in touch with old contacts.

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