There's been a lot of friction in Zimbabwean cricketing circles over "black quotas" in team selection. I believe that an "affirmative action" policy is important for the long-term development of the game in Zimbabwe. It's a pity that the ZCU is not being open and transparent about its motives.
It is clear that there has been a lot of dissatisfaction among some of the country's leading white players in recent years. Murray Goodwin stated it in a rather unsubtle fashion the other day when he said that black players were getting a "free ride" into the team without having to "perform as well as the European guys to get a game". (It looks like he's in trouble with the WACA over those comments, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Sussex CCC, his northern hemisphere employer, has words to him as well.)
Without doubt there has been a drain of talent from the Zimbabwean side in the last few years. Goodwin came back to Australia and Neil Johnson returned to South Africa, both because of economic concerns. Andy Flower is now splitting his time between Essex and South Australia after his courageous black armband protest at the Zimbabwe-Namibia world cup game earlier this year. Henry Olonga, who participated in the same protest, has fled to England and has just been granted a five-year visa by the British government, and intends to pursue a career in music.
Also in the past day we've learned that Bryan Murphy, best known for being appointed captain of the Zimbabwean team and then immediately dropping himself for poor form, has moved to South Africa to take up a coaching position at the University of Cape Town. As that tireless scribe of Zimbabwean cricket, John Ward, reported on CricInfo yesterday, Murphy is the eighth international player to leave Zimbabwe prematurely during 2003.
The reasons would appear to be manifold, and certainly not all related to quota selections. Escape from the Mugabe regime and from a crumbling economy are the two most compelling reasons, but getting away from the ZCU seems to be on the list as well. The manner in which the ZCU attempted to play down Henry Olonga's carjacking incident in early 2002 was especially disgraceful.
Following Goodwin's comments this week, the ZCU has denied that any quotas are in place. There may not be any set numbers laid down in their selection policies, as in South Africa, but there is clear evidence that the fast-tracking of black players is taking place. Why else would nineteen year-old wicketkeeper Tatenda Taibu be appointed vice-captain? And how else would Hilton Masakadza be elevated to the Test team at the age of seventeen?
Is that, however, a problem? Masakadza went on to score a century in his Test debut against the West Indies in July 2001.
If Zimbabwe is to develop as a cricketing nation, there must be a concerted effort to discover and develop the talent hidden throughout its whole population. The "Europeans", to use Murray Goodwin's ugly description, account for less than two per cent of the Zimbabwean population, and continue to dominate national team selections. Taibu and Dion Ebrahim are the only non-white players in the First Test team currently playing Australia at the WACA.
The best thing that the Zimbabwe Cricket Union could do, in my opinion, is to set out a clear "affirmative action" policy, ensuring a minimum set number of black players in the Test and one-day international teams. Would it compromise the team's performance in the short term? Maybe, but what do they have to lose in reality? And it would be much better to have an open, transparent and consistent policy that is clear to everyone, so that at least all players know where they stand.
It's not unlike the policy already in place in South Africa. Affirmative action does have a place in elite sport if it's handled properly.