Brush with death changed my life
It takes courage to stand up for what you believe – particularly when it could place you in jeopardy. Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga very publicly opposed the Mugabe regime and was branded a traitor. Steven Russell meets a Suffolk author helping to tell the story – and plenty of others besides
DEREK Clements won’t forget the moment he realised life had to change. “I was driving home after an 18-hour shift when I fell asleep at the wheel of my car and crashed into the central reservation on the A12 at 3am.
“I remember coming to and hearing all this grinding and crunching, and recall thinking ‘This must be what it feels like just before you die.’
“All of a sudden it stopped and I realised I was OK – a few aches and pains, but I was OK. What remained of the car had come to a halt in the outside lane, in pitch black. The lights had gone out. “Everything had died. Just before I got out of the car I pressed the hazard warning lights switch, and unbelievably they came on. I got out the car, raced to the side of the road, and phoned the police.
At that time a sports journalist on a national newspaper, he’d been heading back to Ipswich from London when he had his brush with death during the early hours of that April morning in 2008.
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Quite how closely he’d skirted with disaster became clear later when he went to a car lot in town to claim his possessions from the wrecked vehicle.
“It’s only when you see it afterwards . . . The front alloy wheels had broken in two, and that really shocked me.
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“The body was kind of concertinaed. It was unrecognisable as the Alfa Romeo it had been before I crashed it. That was the moment I realised just how lucky I was.
“I got to thinking about what was going to happen with the rest of my life. The first week I went back, I worked a 15-hour Friday and a 19-hour Saturday. I thought to myself ‘This is never going to change. I’m going to put my-self in the same position again.’ I knew all the tricks – window down, fresh air, music on full blast – but I’d been doing that the night I fell asleep. Something had to change.”
So that autumn, aged nearly 54, he quit his plum job as chief sports sub-editor on that national newspaper. His new career, he resolved, would involve writing books – probably about sports people.
It was a healthy move on more than one level.
“I’d come into newspapers because I loved writing, but I’d become pigeonholed as a production journalist. You’re involved at the sharp end and all the stuff gets thrown at you” – other people’s writing and pictures, to sort out – “and there’s very little chance to do any creative work. I just missed that so much.”
Derek’s first idea was to see if he could follow professional golfer Graeme Storm around the greens and fairways. The former successful amateur had turned pro in 2000 and won the 2007 French Open.
“I had this idea that spending a year with a European tour golfer might make a decent book: a warts and all story about what life was like on tour,” says Derek.
Sadly, Storm decided it would be too much of a commitment. But the management organisation looking after him had given the would-be writer a list of its clients, and the name Henry Olonga jumped out.
“I’d vaguely been aware that he’d got involved in some kind of black armband protest at the 2003 Cricket World Cup, but I didn’t really know too much about him. I started doing a bit of research, and the more I looked into it the more I thought ‘This would make a great book.’ How does a man who was the first black cricketer to play for his country, the youngest man to play for his country, reach a point where he’s prepared to say to the world ‘This country stinks. Robert Mugabe is a criminal and something needs to be done’?”
Happily, Henry was up for it – and a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and 2,500-word taster convinced Surrey publisher Vision Sports the idea had legs.
The writer and the former cricketer locked themselves away for a week in Derek’s house off Colchester Road in Ipswich and shone an unrelenting spotlight on the world of Henry Olonga.
“It’s emotionally draining for both people – especially him, because he’s putting his whole life in front of a person he didn’t really know,” admits Derek. “We’d spent maybe two hours in each other’s company before he sat down in this house and he told me every spit and cough of his story.
“The other thing is that he was determined he wasn’t going to dis people, which meant there were certain episodes in his life about which I’d want him to go into great detail, but he refused. I’ve got to be completely honest, I had to take my hat off to him, even though I could see some book sales going down the drain, because he just didn’t want to upset people – other than Robert Mugabe. He was happy to tell the truth about what he perceived about an incredibly corrupt regime.
“He been educated in Zimbabwe and part of the curriculum involved kids being told what a wonderful man their prime minister and then president was. As Henry got older, he started hearing stories, he started doing a bit of internet research, and began to realise what happened to people who stood up against Mugabe.
“It was a fairly painful experience for him, I think, to sit down and relate that process to me. But when he left this house, I knew we had a really good story.”
Zimbabwe’s first black cricketer, a fast-bowler, made his test debut against Pakistan in 1995. He was only 18 years old. His best performance came in 1998, against India, when he took five wickets for just 70 runs. Then came the 2003 Cricket World Cup.
Henry had become sickened by politics in his homeland. When elder statesman Andy Flower, a batsman, suggested he join a protest against the president, the initially-wary Olonga realised it was a prime opportunity to focus attention on the plight of his countrymen.
For Zimbabwe’s opening match, against Namibia in Harare, the pair wore symbolic black armbands and issued a statement decrying the death of democracy. As the storm raged, Olonga was dropped from the team. (Flower, the best player, kept his place.)
One of the most fascinating aspects for Derek was that Henry protested without having a clue what would happen afterwards – an act of true courage. Flower, who had already signalled his impending retirement from international cricket and was set to head to England and a likely coaching career, knew he could hardly be punished profession-ally. (He’d play a season for Essex and in the spring of 2009 the former Zimbabwe captain was appointed England team director.) Henry, younger, was entering unchartered waters.
The author reckons there’s always a moment when one hears an anecdote and immediately thinks “That’s the opening line of the book.”
“With Henry, it was after the World Cup and his father getting a message from a politician, saying ‘Your son needs to get out of Zimbabwe.’ It was a veiled threat, because he knew that, if he didn’t, he was probably going to be locked up for the rest of his life.”
Olonga’s best hope was for Zimbabwe to qualify for the later stages of the competititon, the Super Sixes, because they’d have to fly to South Africa for matches. The team did, though it was soon knocked out – leaving Olonga wondering what would happen next.
He lodged with friends in Johannesburg and eventually came to England, after a mysterious South African benefactor paid for his air ticket. He was taken under the wing of David Folb, who ran Lashings Cricket Club – a side that started as a Kent team of local players with rather more enthusiasm than skill and morphed into a group of high-profile cricketers nearing the end of their careers. They’d travel about, raise money for charity, and have fun.
David Folb put a roof over Henry’s head and paid him to play for Lashings. A new – safer – life had begun.
Of course, there’s huge sadness. The price for Olonga’s stand was that he was branded a traitor in Zimbabwe, stripped of his citizenship and – on paper – exists under sentence of death. He’s never been able to return to his homeland and today lives in London with Australian wife Tara.
Blood, Sweat and Treason tells the Olonga story from childhood to the present day, via his growing realisation he was living in a dictatorship and his fight to reach the top as a black sportsman. It covers not just the armband protest but a terrifying car-jacking in Harare and a two-year dispute with his Zimbabwe team-mates after a row about dressing-room racism.
In the seven years since arriving in England, Henry has become something of a Renaissance Man.
A tenor, he’s released a single called Our Zimbabwe and a pop album. He is also an artist, photographer and video-maker. “Incredibly gifted – and a man born with an ability to bowl a cricket ball at almost 100mph!” says Derek, who came to Ipswich in 1985 and spent 12 years with the East Anglian Daily Times, rising to deputy editor, before heading for the national newspaper scene in London.
While life has had its rollercoaster moments, Henry has no regrets about his protest – though, of course, there is always an underlying sadness, “with the certainty that, as long as Robert Mugabe is alive, he cannot go back to Zimbabwe”.
The writer says: “One of the things I’d love to know is what Mugabe thinks. He must know the book exists, and I’d be very surprised if he hasn’t managed to get hold of it. I’d love to know what his reaction is to Henry’s story, because it brings it all out again.”
Sales are gathering momentum – helped no end by the articulate Henry’s drive, enthusiasm for the project and media savviness – but first-time author Derek admits he has no idea if he’ll make any money from this first venture.
“But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Because the feeling to have that in my hand, with my name on it, I can’t tell you the satisfaction I got from that – to be able to say ‘I did that.’ It’s a big deal to be starting off again, but I’ve absolutely no regrets.”
He hopes to write three or four books a year – and start to earn a pound or two soon from this fledgling “second career”.
“A word of caution to anyone else who’s thinking of doing this, Steve: you don’t order your Ferrari just yet,” he smiles. “I’m having to do other freelance work to keep myself ticking over. I’m as busy as I’ve ever been, but I’m not doing 19-hour shifts anymore – and it’s two-and-a half years since I last fell asleep at the wheel . . .”
n Blood, Sweat And Treason, by Henry Olonga and Derek Clements, Vision Sports Publishing, �18.99
Shining a light into dark corners
YOU can’t be anodyne – even if that means reviving some painful memories . . .
Derek Clements hopes the book on Henry Olonga will prove the first of many assisted autobiographies featuring well-known names. One on golfer Gary Wolstenholme, who turned professional in 2008 at the age of 48, is due out in October. He’s currently writing the life-story of 2006 world snooker champion Graeme Dott and has struck a deal to pen the autobiography of actress Liza Goddard. Then there’s a book on a former footballer training as a forensic detective . . .
He’s determined not to become formulaic and “listy”, though – realising that makes for a dull read. Trouble is, presenting a good story means teasing out the human interest angles: the things that jangle our emotions.
Take Graeme Dott. He’s had to deal with the death through cancer of his father-in-law, who was also his mentor. As a consequence, the snooker player suffered pretty horrendously from depression.
“Talking about it, Graeme broke down, because it was all still very raw,” says Derek, who the next day had to sit down and speak to the player’s wife about the experience.
“Within half an hour she was in tears, and when she started crying, I started crying. You suddenly realise how difficult it is. It’s a huge responsibility to listen to someone talking about the most tragic thing that’s ever happened to them, and realise you have to go away, put that in black and white and do it justice.
“You also know that, if the book’s going to be successful, that’s the bit that’s going to draw people in – his depression battle. The TV, radio and print interviews that follow will focus on that, so he’s going to have to address it all over again.
“It’s been a real eye-opener, the whole process of sitting down with people and drawing out the most painful memories, and then trying to balance that with some humour. The darkest moments have to be recorded, but it’s so important to get a bit of light in there too.”
Such as the time Dott and his wife went to Glasgow Airport to go on holiday. Their flight wasn’t showing on the departure board, and they waited in vain, before finally asking at check-in. “And the desk lady says ‘Well, if you’d been here a month ago today, you might actually have caught the flight!’ They’d missed the holiday by a month!”
Not that the ball-potter should worry. He’s done very well for himself – hence the opening to the book that Derek’s chosen. “With Graeme, it’s a teacher asking him ‘What are you going to do with your life?’, him saying ‘I’m going to become a professional snooker player’, and her saying ‘You’ll never make a living.’ This is a guy who’s won the world championship and appeared in two world finals, has a magnificent house, a lovely family and a good lifestyle.”
Another project concerns former Dutch footballer Arjan de Zeeuw, who played in the Premier League with Wigan and Portsmouth before ending his British career with Coventry during the 2007/8 season.
The defender, born in 1970, is not your average player. Before becoming a professional footballer he studied for a degree in medical science.
When he finally hung up his boots, he decided he wanted to join the Dutch police, and is now training as an investigator specialising in forensics. Derek is due to spend time with him in the Netherlands, hearing a story that will take in not only the beautiful game but the many strands of a multi-layered life. The Dutch police are apparently thrilled to bits with the publicity.
“There aren’t many footballers who join the police,” laughs the author, with understatement. “Can you imagine Ashley Cole joining the Met? Probably not . . .”
Olonga, the man
Henry Olonga was born in Zambia in 1976
He spent his first few years in Zambia and Kenya before moving to Zimbabwe in 1981
At boarding school he showed promise at athletics
When his athletics coach left the school, his cricket coach planted a new dream: to become a fast bowler. It was one he’d make come true
Henry became a Christian at 16 and his faith is pivotal in his life
He made his international debut in 1995 – the youngest player and first black cricketer to play for Zimbabwe
His first ball gave away four ‘wides’!
But his third ball claimed a wicket. And Zimbabwe won its first ever test match
The armband protest
Part of the statement issued by cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga on February 10, 2003
We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed. We are aware that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans may even die in the coming months through a combination of starvation, poverty and Aids.
We are aware that many people have been unjustly imprisoned and tortured simply for expressing their opinions about what is happening in the country. We have heard a torrent of racist hate speech directed at minority groups. We are aware that thousands of Zimbabweans are routinely denied their right to freedom of expression. We are aware that people have been murdered, raped, beaten and had their homes destroyed because of their beliefs and that many of those responsible have not been prosecuted.