Sharing tactics behind enemy lines

Many people mistakenly believe that stories of troops calling truces during wars to spend time together during festive or holy seasons are apocryphal, but there are photographs to prove otherwise, most famously when English and German soldiers left their trenches during World War One to have Christmas lunch in no-man’s land.

When they’d finished and washed everything down with the cheap liquor their commanders gave them to overcome their terror, they returned to their squalid holes and continued the wait for the inevitable call to death. But at least they’d seen the men behind enemy lines close up and knew that they were not the monsters the liquor-providers had made them out to be.

How about that for an ‘over the top’ introduction to a column!

After 22 years in the trenches of journalism and commentary, I was lucky enough to be invited to work ‘on the other side’ for the first time in my career – and I was delighted to accept the invitation.

Hence I am in Port of Spain, Trinidad, acting media liaison officer for the Zimbabwe national team, and not in India with the Proteas. It is a short-term appointment lasting just three weeks until the end of the tour of the West Indies which starts with a T20 international at the Queen’s Park Oval on Sunday and includes five ODIs, two in Guyana and three in St.Vincent. It represents one of the most exciting challenges I’ve ever had.

The Zimbabwe team is determined to shake off a reputation for indifference and subservience acquired since its withdrawal from Test cricket six years ago and one of the ways of doing that is to communicate effectively and positively. The main way, of course, is to perform on the field but verbal and physical ‘messaging’ contributes massively to creating a tangible belief in each other, their supporters and even their opposition.

“We have been through some tough times in Zimbabwe cricket,” says former captain Tatenda Taibu, “but it’s time now to stamp some authority back into our performances and get back to where Zimbabwe cricket was ten or 15 years ago.

“I’m not saying we are going to beat the West Indies but we have come here with the intention of winning the series, not just ‘competing’, that is the way we are thinking.”

At a team meeting before departure from Harare, the squad came up with their own mission statement: ‘To win the series and convince the world that Zimbabwe Cricket must be taken seriously again.” To be a part of the process, however small and for however long, is a privilege.

Too many people, for too long, have dismissed the team’s right to a place in the world game – and when South Africa beat them in a Test match at Newlands inside two days six years ago, I was firmly amongst them. The domestic game in the country had dissolved in an acidic bath of economic turmoil, diffidence and racial tension. Now it has been rebuilt with five professional franchises, financial and administrative restructuring and the return of more than a dozen, high profile and talented ‘deserters’, either as players or coaches.

They are not ready for Test cricket yet, and maybe it will be years before they are. But, just as I was ready ( and indeed saw it as my job) to call for a callow and corrupt Zimbabwe’s removal from the world game, I am more than ready to add whatever scraps of value I can muster to fuel their determination to draw a line in the sand and start afresh.

There is nothing quite like seeing a situation first hand. It is easy to form an opinion by watching television and reading editorials, but it is not as accurate as touch, smell and feel. The players are not passing comment, either by word or deed, on anything other than cricket – the sport they love and which provides them with an opportunity to earn a living.

It’s true that sport and politics can never be separated. But that’s no reason to stop trying.

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