Sat, Dec 30, 2017 - Page 16 News List

PM’s nerves before Zimbabwe cricket match revealed

The Guardian

By the time he strode out to open the batting in a charity match in then-Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s country, then-British prime minister John Major had overcome personal doubts about the event, as well as objections from senior advisers, newly released British government files reveal.

Months of preparation leading up to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Harare in October 1991 are documented in records passed to the National Archives in London.

Work on the conference began as early as April that year when Major’s wife, Norma, received an invitation through Downing Street to visit a school near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

“Yes, please,” the British prime minister wrote on the letter; “but plenty of travel pills.”

Asked to speak at a white farmers’ club in the Zimbabwean capital, Norma Major declined.

In September, the cricket-loving British prime minister received a sporting proposition from his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.

“I entirely agree with you that cricket unites nations on all continents,” Sharif wrote. “I feel that the unifying aspect of this game would be vividly demonstrated by organizing a festival charity cricket match during the next Commonwealth summit at Harare between all the delegations attending the conference.”

“Being an avid follower of the game like yourself, I would love to take part in such a match and I hope you would be able to lend your support to such an idea,” Sharif wrote.

“Please support. A very good idea. J,” John Major wrote in blue pen.

Kieran Prendergast, then-UK high commissioner in Zimbabwe, expressed reservations about the game.

“Assuming Nawaz Sharif’s suggestion is serious, the idea of any kind of cricket match at Victoria Falls is a non-starter,” he cabled back to London.

“It is too hot. There is no ground there and I understand anyway that the PM’s knee is not up to a long innings? As you know I am not myself a member of the cricketing faith,” he wrote.

Instead, Prendergast proposed an “informal supper party” with a few Zimbabwean cricketers accompanied by Sharif, then-Australian prime minister Bob Hawke and then-Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley and the Barbadian Cabinet secretary.

However, John Major persevered and supported the donation of £600 (US$808 at the current exchange rate) worth of cricket equipment to local clubs as part of UK overseas aid.

In October, the British prime minister received a note from an official reporting that Sharif had been “practicing in the nets in Islamabad.”

The cricket match took place on Oct. 18, 1991. The West Indies Test batsman Clive Lloyd, England’s Graeme Hick and Zimbabwe’s David Houghton participated.

John Major and Hawke opened the batting for the politicians, who were each allowed a limited number of overs.

The rules of the charity game recorded that singles scored by heads of government would each earn 250 Zimbabwean dollars for charity.

John Major, playing defensively, hit fewer than 10 runs, but was not out. The occasion raised more than Z$71,000.

In a letter dispatched two days later to Mark Williams, the Zimbabwean correspondent of the Cricketeer magazine who had arranged the match, the British prime minister confessed his initial nervousness.

“May I thank you for the tremendous work you put into the organization of Friday’s cricket match,” he wrote. “I approached the occasion with the greatest trepidation, but in retrospect I concede that you hit upon the right formula. The match was a great success: by bringing together different parts of the Commonwealth in an enjoyable social occasion, by helping to promote cricket at a school-boy level in Zimbabwe and by raising money for charity.”

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