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How Flower found special place in cricket’s history

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TWO well-known sayings come to mind when reflecting on the cricketing life and times of Zimbabwe’s historically finest wicketkeeper-batsman Andy Flower as he is belatedly inducted with international as well as local acclaim to the International Cricket Council’s Hall of Fame, a first for this country.

JOHN KELLEY

“Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” an accolade invented for himself by Muhammad Ali but also adopted without shouting about it by Roger Federer, Tiger Woods and others. Except that Flower, moved by a strong sense of motivation, stung the senses of a Zimbabwean cricket fraternity more like a silent scorpion in terms of his wider activities and methods.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick” also neatly summarised Flower. This one originated with United States president Theodore Roosevelt when describing his foreign policy.

“Better late than never” is what I attach to the International Cricket Council (ICC), which mulled over his induction for 14 long and almost insulting years. What on earth could have taken them so long?

Flower’s induction, with just two others of other countries for the year 2021 from a full choice of international players (and what about Graeme Hick?) had been an obvious selection much earlier.

There are now just over 100 Hall of Fame inductees, with W. G. Grace an early and obvious selection, so perhaps I cannot quarrel with the overall quality and exclusivity of those with famous names selected through 150-plus years.

In now taking the name Andy Flower ahead of many hundreds, even thousands, of other famous Test batsmen over the years, his curriculum vitae, detailed below, bears a closeexamination as background for a most outstanding choice.

It takes a minute or so to walk from a dressing room to the hot zone of a Test match wicket. Impatient fast bowlers such as Glenn McGrath, Waqar Younis, Dennis Lillee or Allan Donald will be tossing in expectation the little red missile in the air and pawing the ground like Spanish bulls.

They would be trying to transmit their menacing thoughts to a batsman just arrived. They try to  indicate to him that either they will quickly break his stumps with a yorker, or a couple of ribs with one pitched a bit short.

The spectators in the pavilion and at Harare Sports Club’s Castle Corner would be glued to his back in the hope of his survival. Then, after some overs survived, be in anticipation of a three-figure score.

The batsman would have to analyse in less than half a second the pace of a ball, its direction, length and behaviour, instantly transmitting the information from eyes to brain which, in turn, would, in another half a second, message the hands and feet for their response.

Which would either be to leave the 90-mph ball alone, fend it off, or send it to a selected part of the boundary. All that with a bat a few inches across and with some sledging going on nearby.

With the hope (or in Flower’s case the intention) of getting a century in these circumstances, a batsman would need to go through this process at least around 200 times.

And if Zimbabwe fielded first, he would probably have spent a long time as wicketkeeper with its necessarily extended periods of concentration.

A cold beer at the close of play and thoughts about how he had damaged some bowling averages with a big score would go with the satisfaction of success after so much intensity.

Not for himself, but actually in the national interest.

That interest would also be centred upon his objective of inspiring teammates who would follow him, especially if they had previously suffered a succession of defeats and produced poor personal performances that were often – too often – the case. That was his greater responsibility and greater objective as he saw it.

Flower’s record of runs scored is sitting there for all to see in cold Wikipedia print. But the figures did not tell the Flower story by any means. Instead, it was the motivation behind them that counted, and the greater circumstances of their accumulation.

Thus, in simply using the word “outstanding” to describe his Test cricket career and the succession of big scores, the point is widely missed. The context is what mattered to him.

Zimbabwe were granted full membership of the ICC, meaning Test cricket status, in 1992 when Alwyn Pichanick and Peter Chingoka (both late) went to London after the country had comprehensively and frequently walloped all rivals in their lower category, such as Kenya and Holland.

Their claim was irresistible and well-presented. But in reality, the disparity between opposing Namibia and of facing up to Australia, for instance, was much too wide.

Defeats by the “big nine” Test countries (as there were at the time) were even dismayingly predictable and more comprehensive by the month.

It was so easy for our administrators to demand success, sometimes even interfering with selection. And clearly so difficult for players of insufficient level to rectify the often-embarrassing results.

A prime and excruciating example was a two-Test tour by India, who recorded victories inside two days and by an innings plus 200 runs each, stating afterwards they would not bother to ever return.

Thus, Andy Flower felt he persistently had to continue to do something about it. An immense task, but he tackled it with skill, determination and character.

Well aware of his capabilities, he was needed much like Winston Churchill was needed by Britain in the Second World War.

His personal successes were phenomenal but, overall, the hoped-for results tended to remain distant. It was all like trying to catch bullets in a circus act. That is why Flower stood out a mile with the fans’ admiration for so long, and eventually with the ICC.

Born in Cape Town 53 years ago, Flower played in 63 Tests for Zimbabwe and had 112 innings. He accumulated 4 794 runs at an average of 51.50, meaning a half century on average every time he batted. He easily holds the record world-wide for a top Test score by a wicketkeeper-batsman, 232.

His highest ODI score was a phenomenal 145, well up with the Chris Gayles and Gary Sobers. As a ‘keeper he took 292 catches in Tests and ODIs overall and made 41 stumpings.

Having moved on from Zimbabwe rather earlier than expected, he played for Essex together with brother Grant, and also with South Australia for a period.

Following injury that obliged a retirement from playing, there was more outstanding success to come as England coach and subsequently team director for five years and in taking the English to premier position among the Test nations.

While brother Grant tended to be outgoing with people, and not least we journalists, or many of them at any rate, Andy tended to be rather aloof – though not self-centred – and very careful with what he had to say or do.

Sometimes I found this irritating because as a long-standing local journalist, including as a Rho-Zim cricket writer, I liked to regard myself in a small way as being “one of the boys” nurturing some close relationships built over years since 1969.

But my admiration for him knew no bounds because I felt I had a good understanding of what propelled him.

Conversely, I have a low regard for the ICC, not least because of their featherbedding of the rather moribund and confused Zimbabwean cricket administration personnel and having seen their questionable policies close up for quite a few years.

I will give just one example. At long last, the ICC answered growing clamours for a forensic examination of the corrupt and incompetent financial affairs of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), not least the “gift” of £50 000 to Chingoka “for services to cricket.”

This Zimbabwe executive was eventually allowed to brazenly engage a long-standing attorney-cum-accountant friend in Southerton to do the job. I mean “do a job.”

His whitewash was then approved by the ICC at a Harare meeting, with just rudimentary and uncritical examination.

I spoke privately afterwards in an outer room to the managing director of ICC of the time, Malcolm Speed, whom I regarded as a bluff and honest official.

“Oh, that’s just the way it is done in Africa,” he told me with a shrug. I was stunned. A blind eye if ever there was one. He resigned soon afterwards, possibly out of so much embarrassment.

All this might have had a debilitating effect on Flower. But he rose above it all with his bat and single-minded approach to what he saw as his personal duty to the team.

Flower’s parting shot, as it inevitably was going to be, and which brought his playing career to a sudden end, came during a World Cup qualifying match against Namibia.

Jointly with Henry Olonga he sent a carefully prepared statement condemning the Robert Mugabe government, essentially for causing the “death of democracy” and accusing them of human rights abuses. A dangerous foray into politics.

In part the statement read: “We have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are marking the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe…making a plea to…stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. We pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation.”

Flower explained later that he had included Olonga in the move through lengthy persuasion because acting alone as a white would be ineffective.

It put his own safety at risk, but Olonga’s situation following the statement was much more dangerous, with possible physical retribution likely from some quarters.

Both left the country soon afterwards, Flower to play English and Australian cricket. Olonga to pursue a successful career in television and as a singer.

Flower received a Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Gloucestershire “with a record of outstanding contribution to cricket and to coaching, having a strong desire to make a difference and to inspire others.”

He was also awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal for services to sport in 2011, on top of being voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

All of the above drama, and lofty recognition, added up with extraordinary impact around the world to the Flower legend.

With widespread acclaim, he now enters proudly, or in his case probably just modest satisfaction, into the ICC “Hall of Fame.”

But fame is abstract. To me a “Hall of Achievement” would be more appropriate for his inclusion.

*Veteran journalist and author John Kelley, a former news editor of the Herald and sports editor of the Sunday Mail in Harare, was an international sports writer in Zimbabwe for nearly 30 years. Retired in England, Kelley penned  this tribute exclusively for The NewsHawks.

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