Grant Flower addresses the media in Lahore
© Getty Images/AFP

'One thing Zimbabweans do is, they deal well with adversity'

Grant Flower talks about his playing days, the problems facing Zimbabwe's cricket, and whether brother Andy really is a "mood hoover"

Danyal Rasool  |  

On February 9, 2003 - the eve of Zimbabwe's first home match at a cricket World Cup - the nation's first black cricketer and its greatest ever batsman got ready to make a decision that would end their careers instantly. Henry Olonga and Andy Flower would issue a statement bemoaning the "death of democracy" in Zimbabwe, and wear black armbands during every match of the tournament to observe it. It was a move they had tried to keep secret, but Andy's brother Grant and legspinner Brian Murphy caught wind of their plans and asked to join in.

"My brother said they'd rather not have it that way," Grant Flower, currently batting coach of the Pakistan cricket team, tells me over coffee in Lahore. "He didn't want it to be seen as a protest that included too many white guys. One white guy and one black guy would send a much stronger political statement."

Olonga and Andy Flower never played for Zimbabwe again, permanently leaving the country. But the protest caught the imagination of much of the public - as many as 200 spectators wore black armbands to Zimbabwe's next game to show their support - and the reaction of the wider world was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the players received so much international support that the ICC refused to charge the pair for what was a blatant political statement. Today that protest stands as an iconic moment that was able to transcend cricket in a way nothing else from a somewhat unremarkable World Cup could manage.

A little over a year later, in April 2004, Zimbabwe cricket headed for another crisis. Grant Flower was at the forefront of this one. Dissatisfaction with selection policies based on informal racial quotas was the bone of contention. As the dispute raged on with no sign of resolution, Flower and 14 of his team-mates made a statement of their own. Effectively, Zimbabwe's entire first team squad went on strike.

"My brother wasn't even sure he wanted to pursue cricket until quite late, while I knew this is what I wanted to do"

The morning of August 14 is as deserted as you'll ever see the roads of Lahore. It is Pakistan's Independence Day, a national holiday throughout the country. Most people are enjoying a lie-in, sheltering from the oppressive humidity and preparing for a night of taking to the streets in a display of patriotic festivity. Even as I drive into the Gaddafi Stadium complex, there's barely a car in sight, and no security guard to stop me and demand I state my intentions.

I'm meeting Grant Flower in a coffee shop opposite the National Cricket Academy. He lives in the same building, and is already there by the time I arrive. He is exactly as you might expect, wearing a Pakistan training jersey and a pair of shorts, studiously hunched over a laptop. I'd like to think he was analysing technical weaknesses of one Pakistan batsman or another. After all, it's not like he'd be short of material.

Independence Day is a fitting time to meet Flower. He was born in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, but at the time neither the city nor the country registered on the world map; geography stated that Grant William Flower was born in Salisbury, Rhodesia.

"What I remember about growing up at that time is predominantly a sporting culture," says Flower. "Growing up in a family of five children, my dad loved sports, and there was a culture of boys being outdoors, doing stuff. The climate was lovely, and everything revolved around being active and playing lots of sports. In a big family that's made easier, so we were fortunate. The people in Rhodesia, as it was at the time, were wonderful, and I have great memories of it."

While the Flower family played a number of sports, cricket always held a special place in their hearts, and indeed their genes. "My dad had a love of the game of cricket, and we developed it from there. He played at what you'd call club level, and in my early teens, I said to my dad, 'I want to play professional county cricket.' That was my ambition. I thought I had a better chance of managing that than playing for my country, but as it happened, my Zimbabwe debut came about earlier."

Pioneers: Grant Flower (left) and Kevin Arnott walk out to bat in Zimbabwe's inaugural Test

Pioneers: Grant Flower (left) and Kevin Arnott walk out to bat in Zimbabwe's inaugural Test © Getty Images

It is tempting to believe, given the relative similarity of Andy and Grant Flower's paths in life since they emerged onto the international cricket scene, that Grant must simply have been following in his older brother's footsteps in their teenage years. However, probe a little deeper, and you find differences. Andy was born in South Africa and initially went to Vainona High School, while Grant studied at St George's College, one of the most prestigious high schools in all of Africa. Moreover, as Grant says, "My brother wasn't even sure he wanted to pursue cricket until quite late, while I knew this is what I wanted to do."

Anyhow, when Zimbabwe attained Test status in 1992, both Flowers were firmly entrenched in the nation's cricket plans, about to embark upon a journey as embryonic to the country as it was to the brothers. The fact that an Indian team comprising superstars across generations would be the opponents in their first ever Test match didn't help calm anyone's nerves. But Flower recalls the arrival of a touring side in Harare that included Kapil Dev, Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar in its playing XI with trademark pragmatism.

"The build-up was huge. Our coach at the time was John Hampshire. We didn't have a solid first-class cricketing structure. We played some two-day matches as preparation for that Test. But I just remember him trying to educate us, telling us to bat sessions and to wear the bowlers down. We didn't have world-beaters in our side, but we had very competitive cricketers.

"I remember the one mantra he had - to keep things simple and get the simple things done well. We did try and do that, play long periods, bowl one side of the wicket, and try and bore the Indians, whether we were batting or bowling. We nearly got them to follow on."

Zimbabwe dominated from start to finish. The captain, Dave Houghton, made a debut century, while Grant scored 82. Zimbabwe amassed 456 before dismissing India for 307. It briefly looked like Zimbabwe would become only the second team (after Australia) to win their first ever Test match, before dogged resistance by India's lower order saw them secure a draw.

Zimbabwe moved towards the 21st century with a sense of optimism, with Flower and his team-mates looking to take the next step and establishing their tiny, politically troubled country as an unlikely member of cricket's elite

The first Test win wasn't far away. It wasn't just a win either; it was a pummelling, coming in 1995 at the expense of a hapless Pakistan team. Grant scored an unbeaten 201, combining with his brother for a 269-run partnership as Zimbabwe piled on 544 for 4 and thrashed the visitors by an innings. It is clear that knock takes pride of place on his mental mantelpiece.

"I think that's my finest moment in a Zimbabwe shirt. Obviously it's great to score a double-century, but also to get such a win against a team like Pakistan. They bowled really well, and they had us in trouble at 40-odd for three, and then I had a big partnership with Andrew.

"The ball was doing quite a bit, and I was just trying to see off the new ball. My brother was playing shots, while I was just ducking and diving from Wasim [Akram] and Aaqib [Javed]. But then we wore them down and they became impatient. I think they had just come off quite a tough tour of South Africa, and there were quite a few things happening off the field with the Pakistanis at the time."

Flower is clearly a guarded, private individual, one who has never actively sought the limelight, either in his time as a cricketer or in his time as a coach. (Casual cricket fans in Pakistan will know of Mickey Arthur, but often forget Flower has been a part of the coaching set-up since mid-2014.) He's far more comfortable talking about cricket as presumably he believes it should be played: a team sport where everyone sticks together. He points to that as the biggest reason why Zimbabwe were able to hold their own against much more talented sides.

"I think our camaraderie and team spirit brought us through a lot. Having been brought up in a country of adversity, where things are generally tough, you have to stick together. We had very good players, but a lot of it was team spirit."

Grant Flower credits the sporting culture in his family as an important influence while growing up

Grant Flower credits the sporting culture in his family as an important influence while growing up © PA Photos/Getty Images

Zimbabwe moved towards the 21st century with a sense of optimism, with Flower and his team-mates looking to take the next step and establishing their tiny, politically troubled country as an unlikely member of cricket's elite. Co-hosting the 2003 World Cup with South Africa and Kenya seemed the next natural stride in that journey, but in a way, it could also be seen as the time the wheels began to come off for Zimbabwe.

England had made their discontent at being made to play in the country clear, and ended up forfeiting their game there. Flower believes they were justified in pulling out, saying the English players were getting threats "that their families would be targeted" if they came to Zimbabwe, and that certain elements in Zimbabwe were trying to make a political statement.

"It took the shine off [qualifying for the Super Sixes]. We had a rained-off game against Pakistan too, which helped us to get through. We were quite fortunate to get through, even though we had a good team."

Discontent that had bubbled beneath the surface boiled over in 2004 as confrontations with the cricket board became protracted and bitter, leading to the players downing tools, bringing the country's cricket to its knees.

Flower is slightly vague about what the crux of the disagreement was; it has been 13 years, though, and much water has flowed under the bridge since. "The disagreement was regarding selections, and quota policies at the time, and just the way things were being run by Zimbabwe Cricket [Union]. We just didn't think it was sustainable for Zimbabwe.

"Maybe we were naïve in thinking we could make a difference in a country where obviously the majority of the population was black. But we were struggling to compete at the best of times with the best in the world. And now, ZCU were implementing measures where people were just getting selected on the basis of their colour. And we thought we've definitely got no chance of competing if that's going to be the case most of the time."

"I think our camaraderie and team spirit brought us through a lot. Having been brought up in a country of adversity where things are generally tough, you have to stick together"

Flower goes on to make a compelling case for how he and his family have always believed that cricket in Zimbabwe, a country with a white population of less than 1%, did not have a sustainable future without being more inclusive. He talks about how his dad coached cricket in the black suburbs, and mentions his brother's remarkable decision - in that racial climate - to move from the Old Georgians, a white, elite cricket club, to Takashinga, an all-black club, further establishing the Flowers' credentials as champions of greater black involvement in the sport.

"Those things were happening all the time. And I got first employed by Zimbabwe as a cricket coach, and then a player, and a lot of my coaching was out in the black suburbs. So I was actively involved in that. But our thoughts were that the process would happen naturally, and we thought it was fast-forwarded too quickly for the good of Zimbabwe cricket."

Flower says it would have been a surprise if a player of colour had decided to join their strike, but that's not to say he didn't try. "I did go and speak to [Tatenda] Taibu. I was probably naïve in going to speak to him. But I thought it had got to that stage in our discussions that it was a deadlock. I thought Taibu had a good head on his shoulders and he was having his own problems regarding pressure from various sources and they were tough times, especially for a young guy like him."

Flower uses the word "naïve" to describe his actions, as well as those of the striking players at least half a dozen times. In a conversation displaying remarkable self-reflection and honest acceptance of his own mistakes, he admits the players essentially "took a chance, we gave it a go", in the hope that their demands would be accepted by a board that would otherwise see its entire first team wiped out. As it happened, the board called their bluff, sacked the striking players, and looked to move on, unperturbed that results dropped like a stone after that.

"I got told by Ozias Bvute [ZCU's director of integration] that my services weren't required, and that I could go overseas and play county cricket and take a lot of my white counterparts with me and Zimbabwe cricket would be better off for it. When you get told those things, you don't get a good feeling of wanting to stay around, which is unfortunate."

"Mood hovers? Us?": Grant (left) and Andy Flower © Getty Images

Most of the striking players never played for their country again; some of them dropped out of the game altogether. Perhaps the most unusual career switch came from bowler Travis Friend, who took up flying courses in England, and currently works as a pilot for Qatar Airways. Flower, for his part, got a county deal with Essex, where he spent six seasons, and where it was assumed he would end his career when his deal ran out in 2010, at the age of 39. But as he looked to wind down his career, the phone rang, with ZC managing director and former team-mate Alistair Campbell on the line.

"He said, just do one or two more tours to bring some of the young players through. I didn't really want to. At the time, I wanted to start off as a coach. But he convinced me to go on a tour of South Africa. I had a couple of games and I felt off the pace, and I knew that was the time to retire."

Although his playing comeback lasted two games, Campbell had a job for him, appointing him Zimbabwe's batting coach. He was delighted to take up the role, and says he considers himself Zimbabwean before anything else. But as he acknowledged, the country still had its problems, and one of them brewed without anyone really having an idea.

Prosper Utseya had just resigned as Zimbabwe captain - as it later emerged, he felt he was jumping before he was pushed - writing a 10,000-word letter to ZC in 2015, accusing Campbell of racial discrimination against him.

"Prosper and I have had our differences over the years. He's been a very good bowler for Zimbabwe, but he's obviously got his grievances," Flower says. "That was quite ugly, with what happened with Alistair. I don't think Prosper helped himself, and I think he showed his true colours by some of the things he said. It's quite unfortunate if that's how he feels about Zimbabwe cricket and white cricket. He made it quite clear he'd like to see an all-black team.

Instead of becoming spiteful and embittered, Flower has retained a quiet dignity and twinkling charm that many in his situation have failed to summon

"Dragging Alistair into the matter like that was absurd. It wasn't good for anyone. Alistair's done a lot for Zimbabwe cricket, a lot more than Prosper probably knows. But Prosper wouldn't admit that, and he wouldn't want to see the good that Alistair's done, because he's quite a bitter person."

Flower is still speaking softly, and his tone is even, and that makes the castigatory remarks sound all the more jarring. He does have an unmistakably serious persona about him; he isn't quite the "mood hoover" Kevin Pietersen so sensationally described his brother of being, but no one would easily call him over-zealous.

Ironically, though, it is when we're discussing Pietersen's comments about Andy Flower that Grant sounds most amused. When I read aloud the bit where Pietersen says the former England coach "could walk into a room and suck all the joy out of it in five seconds," he bursts out laughing.

"Look, Pietersen is his own person. Andrew obviously had a lot of differences with him and he's one of the few guys who stood up to Kevin Pietersen, and I don't think Pietersen liked that. Andrew didn't come back at him after the book. He hasn't written his own book or been to the press. I think he sees that's not going to help anyone, and there's more to life than having an ongoing personal spat with Kevin Pietersen.

"Unfortunately, that last Ashes tour, things began to break down [for England]. I spoke to Brad Haddin about it in Australia when I was batting coach of Pakistan and we were in Australia. I asked him how he found Pietersen on that Ashes tour. And he said 'We could tell when he was on the boundary and he wasn't even chasing the ball, and that was in one of the first Test matches, and we knew Kevin Pietersen wasn't interested.' That was quite a telling factor, coming from Brad Haddin.

"But if my brother was sitting here right now, he wouldn't disagree with it [mood hoover description]," Flower chuckles. "He's not the life and soul of the party. I think our own players [the Pakistan team] would see me as quite serious, though probably less so than my brother. Hopefully they won't see me as a mood hoover!"

"If Zimbabwe can somehow manage their finances better and lure the players back with good salary structures and good domestic structures in place, there's a chance Zimbabwe cricket can get back to where it should be" © AFP

You would have to be particularly mean-spirited to begrudge Flower his sombreness. This is someone who witnessed his country fight a bloody civil war to gain independence in his childhood, represented a team as a member of a racial minority that was beginning to feel increasingly intimidated, saw his brother flee the country, and watched all the hard work of Zimbabwe's first generation of Test cricketers cast aside as cricket went the way of the country: into dereliction, decline and debt, the team suffering defeat after defeat. Instead of becoming spiteful and embittered, he has retained a quiet dignity and twinkling charm that many in his situation have failed to summon. True, he had the option of leaving Zimbabwe and continuing his career, while many did not, but you needn't look past Pietersen to know that second options don't inherently bring out a sense of perspective.

Flower puts that down to where he's from. "One thing Zimbabweans do is they deal well with adversity. They face challenges head on and they make a plan. I think that goes for a lot of the African countries."

Flower's biggest concern for the future of Zimbabwe cricket, which he believes is far from secure, is the decline in club cricket, which acted as a bridge between school-level cricket and the first-class game. "I've spoken to someone who lives locally, and he says the schools are still managing; the school structure has always been very good in Zimbabwe. The problem is the intermediary period, like club cricket. That used to be very strong in our time but is sort of non-existent now. It's like a Saturday afternoon social league. People have a few hits over a few beers. So effectively cricketers are going from school level to first-class, and going from that to your national team is a huge leap. And that's why Zimbabwe get found out a lot."

Then, of course, there is the seemingly never-ending list of players Zimbabwe continue to lose, either to other countries' international teams, or to the English county system, where financial security is much more assured and unwanted politics far less ubiquitous. The most high-profile departure recently, of course, was that of Brendan Taylor, a man who had given 11 years to Zimbabwe's national side before finally accepting a Kolpak deal to play for Nottinghamshire. He is just one of a steady stream of players slowly dripping out of Zimbabwean cricket; the bloodletting has left the country almost moribund by now.

"That's their biggest problem, by far. I hear of young cricketers going all the time. You look at the two Currans [Sam and Tom] that play for Surrey, and I know a lot of their mates that play at various colleges in England. If those things don't get addressed, then Zimbabwe cricket's going to struggle for ages. But I know people like Taibu and Heath Streak speak to players to try and get them to stay. There's a good chance of Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis coming back. It's not like they're not trying to get them back. If Zimbabwe can somehow manage their finances better and lure the players back with good salary structures and good domestic structures in place, there's a chance Zimbabwe cricket can get back to where it should be."

Those are big ifs, but Zimbabwe has never been about certainty. Then again, given Flower opted to take up a job in Pakistan cricket, he doesn't seem to mind uncertainty too much.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000