Exile to opera: Courageous Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga makes singing debut at SCG

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By Steve Cannane

Former Zimbabwean Test cricketer Henry Olonga made his debut at the famed Sydney Cricket Ground recently, but not in the way you might have imagined.

His first appearance at the SCG was not as a fast bowler, but as an opera singer performing Nessun Dorma at a charity dinner.

Olonga was the first black cricketer to play for Zimbabwe and is now an accomplished singer, but he is perhaps best known for the courageous political stance he took 13 years ago.

When Zimbabwe played its first game of the 2003 Cricket World Cup, Olonga and his team mate Andy Flower wore black armbands to mourn the death of democracy under Robert Mugabe.

While Flower was about to retire from international cricket, Olonga was just 26 and in the prime of his career. The fast bowler paid the price for his principles. Soon after he was forced off the national team and had to go into exile after receiving death threats. He has never returned to Zimbabwe.

Last month, Olonga and his Australian wife Tara moved to Adelaide with their two children, giving Olonga the chance to perform at the SCG for the first time.

Singing is not a new passion for him.

“I started as a soloist at the age of 13 when I was cast as a girl for a play called Oklahoma,” he says laughing.

“I need to explain this; I went to a boys only school and they’ve got to find the girl somewhere. So I started off as a girl in Oklahoma.

“The next year I was in The Gondoliers. I was given the principal part as Marco.

“It was also the same year I watched the Three Tenors perform in the World Cup in Italy. I just fell in love with the idea of singing like them.”

Olonga played 30 Tests and 50 one-dayers for Zimbabwe, but he is best remembered for his protest at the World Cup.

He and Andy Flower not only wore black armbands during the match, they also released a 450-word statement slamming the Mugabe regime, exposing the torture, false imprisonment and starvation that had occurred under his leadership.

“I got to the point where I felt like I needed to speak out against some of the things that had happened,” Olonga recalled.

“There’s a long list, there’s human rights abuses, rigged elections, there’s opposition members being put in prison or beaten up, and myself and Andy Flower effectively wanted to protest against a lot of those things.”

Death threats forced Olonga into hiding

Their protest took place at the Harare Sports Club, just a few hundred metres from the president’s house.

As the first black cricketer to play for Zimababwe, some considered Olonga’s actions a betrayal of the president who was a hero of the anti-colonial struggle.

“It was effectively the end of my career. Then the death threats came and that meant I had to consider leaving the country which I did after our final match in South Africa,” he said.

The death threats had been passed on from credible sources within intelligence and political circles.

There are very few sportsmen and sportswomen who are remembered for something above and beyond their achievement out in the middle as it were and he will always be remembered for that.

Cricket historian Mike Coward

Olonga went into hiding in South Africa before moving to England.

Thirteen years on, he has never returned to Zimbabwe

Now that he is living in Australia, Olonga says he doubts he will be reviving his cricket career.

“I’ve heard the wickets are bouncy in Australia and I’m not interested in facing some 15-year-old who hears I’m an ex-Test cricketer and wants to prove a point,” he said laughing.

Cricket community praises Olonga’s courage

Olonga’s courage is still admired in the cricket community by people like former Australian Test captain Ian Chappell.

“Courage comes in a lot of different forms in sport, you’ve got the courage of a batsmen who faces up to fast bowling, you’ve got the courage of a Denis Lillee who has a bad back injury and overcomes that, but the courage to say I’m going to stand up to a leader who is notorious, I may never go back to my country, I may never see my parents again, the courage to make that sort of decision, I can’t comprehend that,” he said.

Indian cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle said Olonga stood up for what was important despite the consequences.

“It’s almost like a batsman who knows when to play a shot and to leave a ball. I know a lot of people would have left that ball alone to be able to continue playing cricket for Zimbabwe,” he said.

“It takes a very different kind of person to play the shot that he did.”

Cricket historian Mike Coward says Olonga should be proud of what he did.

“There are very few sportsmen and sportswomen who are remembered for something above and beyond their achievement out in the middle as it were and he will always be remembered for that,” he said.

“He had the courage as a young man in a very difficult environment to stand up.”-ABC