Perched precariously atop a high wooden-slated bench in the baking February sunshine as a raucous crowd milled below, I remained absolutely rooted, completely and utterly transfixed by the scenario unfolding just yards away.
At 18 years of age and at my first international cricket match – England versus Zimbabwe in an ODI in Harare – what grabbed my attention was not willow meeting leather out on the square. Oh no. The real drama, as far as I was concerned, was unfolding off the pitch and at that moment my father’s hard-earned cash to pay for the ticket I was holding was far better utilised absorbing the activities of a Zimbabwean spectator preparing to air his grievances in the most public of fashions.
Swaying near the boundary rope was a rotund, shirtless, sunburnt man stood sloshing beer from his polystyrene cup as he attempted to brace his unsteady posture in a defiant-as-possible poise. After a concerted effort, and having established a marginally steady footing, he cupped his hands to his mouth.
“HICK,” he hollered with all the decibels he could apparently muster. Although Graeme Hick stood only a few feet away – at long off – he did not even flinch at his name being yelled from within touching distance but instead, remained absorbed in the lanky figure of Andrew Caddick loping in to bowl on the dry, uneven Harare Sports Club pitch.
“HIIICK,” yelled the swaggering rotund man again, this time with a slightly higher pitch and a modicum of detectable frustration at the futility of his previous effort. Again, however, Hick remained unmoved even though his beckoner must have been almost close enough for his beery breath to have been evident.
Undaunted still by his previous failures to draw the England cricketer’s attention, Hick’s bête noir prepared himself for a more concerted effort to gain a recognition of his presence. His polystyrene cup was cast aside with outright indignity, his small khaki shorts were hoisted up as far as his overhanging midriff would allow and all the sweet Zimbabwean air that his tar-ridden lungs could summon were drawn in as he prepared himself for a yet bigger effort.
“HIIIIIIICCCKKK,” he screamed in a protracted, wavering octave exhalation – expending every last kilojoule of energy present in his body as his flabby frame deflated in a crumpled roll of sweaty, fat, beetroot-coloured, ginger-hair-speckled skin.
This time, his efforts were met with the desired effect. Hick pirouetted to squarely face the caller of his name, his muscular 6ft 3in frame in direct contrast to that of the beer-swilling, pot-bellied and suddenly seemingly diminutive spectator. The thousand or more onlookers in the Western Stand fell abruptly silent. The excited chuntering ceased entirely as that little half-a-square acre of the world stopped expectantly, motionless and poised in awe of the confrontation about to unfold.
“You,” stated the middle-aged, self-proclaimed ‘Rhodie’(the name given to a certain type of white Zimbabwean) – “are a complete and utter fucking prick.”
It took a little while for the words to sink in. But not too long. Within moments, the crowd erupted in a joyous roar of approval as the beer-guzzling lout raised his arms in a triumphant gesture of acknowledgement. Hick could only stand dumbfounded as he stared blankly at his verbal assailant for a second or two, but then turned on his heels and ran in to occupy his new fielding position as the over ended.
I, on the other hand, sat in mortified silence. Not because I did not share the rotund spectator’s sentiments on the traitorous Hick, who was playing not for his native country but for the Three Lions of England, but because I was sitting right next to my father and grandfather. And coming from an ultra-conservative family in a country where 18-year-olds still got six of the best for not turning up to college clean shaven, the sheer vulgarity of the scenario just beheld had three generations of the Mennell family reeling in an awkward stupor.
But as my grandfather’s moustache bristled and twitched at the temerity of the crowd’s overt pleasure in the crude episode, and as my father shrank as inconspicuously as possible into his seat, I fought to conceal my upper lip from curling into an exultant sneer. Because while Hick’s public lambasting provided me and most of my fellow Zimbabwean supporters with a brief, childlike gratification, it was also the only solace to be had on a day when the national side capitulated to 163 all out, chasing a reasonably modest 243. Hick’s man-of-the-match performance – scoring 80 runs and taking a career-best five for 33 with the ball – was to be the difference.
That he chose to showcase the finest in his repertoire of skill and talent playing against his native country was, furthermore, too much of a bitter pill for a fervent Zimbabwean supporter to swallow.
Indeed, by the time of that match in February 2000, Hick had been playing on and off for England for almost a decade and for his county Worcestershire for 16 years. And, having waited a remarkable seven years before he was eligible to don the England shirt in 1991, and perhaps more significantly to him, realise his ambition to play Test cricket, he had every right to be playing for his adopted country.
Ironically, however, Zimbabwe was granted Test status just one year after Hick’s own Test debut, in 1992, and as it ultimately transpired, Hick’s one-day record was better than his Test record anyway.
Furthermore, despite being one of the most prolific run-scorers of all time on the county circuit, his career with England was fraught and somewhat chequered as he failed to fulfil the almighty expectations that the seven-year wait ultimately burdened upon him. His place in the England team was, in the long run, a perpetually revolving door during which he endured enormous scrutiny from peers, selectors, the press and the public.
Like it or not, in my opinon, Hick got the most crucial decision of his career very, very wrong. Had he played for Zimbabwe, it is hardly fathomable that he might have ever been dropped from the national side; not until 2004, at least, when the draconian racial quotas were implemented and he had long since stopped playing for England anyway.
Without having to worry about his place in the national side, or deal with the fickle British press, his confidence would in my view have been far greater than it ever was for England and, consequently, so would his performances.
It is also unlikely that he would have ever had to suffer the sheer callousness of not being able to convert his 98 not out into an Ashes Test century in Sydney because his England skipper felt it was the right time to declare. Proof, perhaps, that while he clearly belonged at New Road, maybe he never really belonged in an England shirt.
But ultimately, and most significantly, he would have been hailed a huge national hero had he played for his country of birth and his international contributions would have been far more than the footnote they are now in the vast realms of English cricketing history.
Moreover, instead of being insulted from the sidelines by a beer-swilling lout, Graeme Hick could just as easily have been enjoying a drink and a boerewors roll alongside his tormentors later on that same Harare day had he been wearing a Zimbabwean red one-day international shirt, possibly even while simultaneously fielding questions and compliments alike from a gushing reporter employed by the country’s only national newspaper.
And surely that would have suited him. So, so much more.
*Jason Mennell is a Zimbabwean writer who now lives in England