In the era of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, Andy Flower dared to challenge their might with the willow. Undoubtedly, he was one of the unsung heroes of world cricket during his playing days….
Having exited from Zimbabwe cricket in the most controversial manner, Andy Flower is the finest batsman Zimbabwe has ever produced. A sharp cricketing mind coupled with talent that comes along the way rarely, Flower was one of the main reasons Zimbabwe were considered to be a force to be reckoned with in the 90s and the early 2000s. With his retirement, Zimbabwe had a lean patch from which they are still to recover.
When we look at records that never will be broken, we have Don Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 and Sachin Tendulkar’s 100 international centuries among many others. Andy Flower defined the concept of a wicketkeeper-batsman with his incredible performances for a decade. An average of 53.71 in 63 Tests is only bettered by AB de Villiers of South Africa with 57.42 (minimum 1,000 runs). De Villiers was more of a part-time wicketkeeper, but Flower stood behind the wickets and then had to quickly change into batting gears for 10 years.
He was not too bad in the ODIs as well. Flower made his debut in the 1992 World Cup. From then on, he became a regular fixture in the Zimbabwe team and he went on to play the next three World Cups, leading his side in the 1996 edition. His exit from international cricket was a rather controversial one, but that does not take away from the fact that he was a wonderful servant for Zimbabwe cricket. Even 15 years after playing his last international match, Flower still holds the record for the leading run-getter in Tests and ODIs.
Flower had all the shots in the books and was never afraid to manufacture a new one when needed. At a time when the reverse sweep was not played many, Flower mastered the craft with absolute ease.
Flower played Zimbabwe’s inaugural Test in 1992, where they gave India a tough fight and thus began Zimbabwe’s journey among the big leagues of world cricket. They registered their first Test win against a strong Pakistan team in 1995 that consisted the likes of Wasim Akram, Aaqib Javed among others. Flower -the captain – scored 156, while his brother Grant Flower slammed an unbeaten 201, stitching together a 269-run stand for the fourth wicket after their side was reduced to 42-3. Zimbabwe went on to lose the series eventually, but the world would finally take notice of the side, that just made their entry into Tests, less than three years ago.
Flower loved to play against India. In fact, some of his best cricket was played against India and that too in India. In his 10 Test innings against India, Flower scored 820 runs at a whopping 117.14, which included as many as three tons and 4 fifties with the highest score of 232 not out. The way he played in India in the Early 90s and 2000s, made him a yardstick against whom other players will be measured. Australia’s Matthew Hayden comes close, but Flower might just take the cake with some mammoth scores in the subcontinent.
Flower was next to invincible in the 200 tour, where he scored 183*, 70, 55 and 232* – Performances that helped him win the player of the series.
In fact, he loved playing in Asia. He scored at an average close to 54 in the continent. Many players, even today can only dream of what Flower did back then in the Indian subcontinent. He was a terrific player of spin and had the skill and temperament to negate any sort of attack in the world. Players from the non-subcontinental areas struggle, but not Flower. The ease at which he played often frustrated the bowlers.
Another country he loved playing against was South Africa. He averages close to 71 against the Proteas in Tests. In one particular match at Harare in 2001, Flower scored 142 and 199 not out, which was the only saving grace for Zimbabwe as they went on to lose by 9 wickets. The only consolation was Flower’s twin tons helped Zimbabwe avoid an innings defeat.
Andy’s brother Grant, who is second in the list of the leading Test and ODI run-scorers mentions that Andy realised very late that he wanted to play cricket. In an interview to Espncricinfo, Grant reveals, “My brother wasn’t even sure he wanted to pursue cricket until quite late, while I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
For a person who decided to take cricket seriously after his brother, scoring 29,485 professional runs is not all that bad, is it?
A bold move
One of the boldest decisions Andy took was when he joined Takshinga, which is an all-black cricket club, from Old Georgians, an elite white cricket club during a time when Zimbabwe was going through political turbulence. Being one of the best cricketers in the nation and also the captain of the national side at the point, Flower’s move made a huge statement – That he was keen on involving more black cricketers in the sport, playing amidst them.
At his mid-teens at that time, a future Zimbabwe player Vusi Sibanda talks about the impact Flower had on the kids at that time. “He was a massive influence, and had a massive impact on the younger kids in particular,” says Sibanda. “Back in the day people felt intimidated to mix and mingle with the white guys. He realised that there was talent at Takashinga, but he also came to get a lot more people playing and involved in the game. Seeing him come through to that side of town had a major influence on us.”
Flower did not see eye to eye with the founders of the club Givemore Makoni and Mangongo and left the club in 2001. Flower during his stay helped groom future black international cricketers like Tatenda Taibu and Hamilton Masakadza. However, the nation’s first black cricketer Henry Olonga was booted out of the club after his black armband protest at the 2003 World Cup.
‘Death of democracy’
Talking about that incident, the aim was to protest the human right atrocities under the eyes of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. Flower and Olonga knew very well knew that opposing their President, who had been in power since 1980 could see them spend the rest of their lives in exile, putting their careers and lives in danger. While other players may or may not have wanted to join them, Flower believes that the message would be sent across much clearer if there was one white and one black Zimbabwean operating together.
While Olonga has written in detail his side of the story, Flower in an interview to BBC revealed what triggered him to take this bold step. Flower’s old friend Nigel Huff once took him to his farm, which was once upon a time a prosperous farm but due to Mugabe’s land reforms, where he would seize all the farms owned by the whites, was left devastated.
“Nigel said we had a moral obligation not to go about business as usual during the World Cup but to tell the world about what was going on in Zimbabwe,” recalls Flower.
“Once he had planted that seed it was very hard to ignore it and it changed the way I viewed the country and our participation in that World Cup.”
Ahead of Zimbabwe’s first ever World Cup match on home soil, against Namibia, Flower and Olonga had made a statement to the press saying that they will be wearing black armbands for the duration of the World Cup to mourn the death of democracy.
Life in exile
The World Cup match against Sri Lanka became Flower’s final match for his country and he fled to England, where he played for Essex – A team he represented from 2002. He also had a stint in Australia with South Australia. Overall, he played 81 First-Class matches for Essex, scoring 6,215 runs at 54.51, including the highest score of 271 not out. In the 50-over format, he amassed 3,224 runs at 47.41, which included 5 centuries and 23 fifties.
After his playing career ended in 2007, he was appointed the assistant coach of England in 2007, second in command to Peter Moores. In 2009, he replaced Moores to become the England team director. His appointment saw England put up some impressive performances. England won The Ashes, the ICC World T20 2010 in the Caribbean and also retained The Ashes by beating Australia at their own backyard. In 2011, England were also the No. 1 ranked Test team in the world.
Flower will not just be remembered for the contributions he made for Zimbabwe, but also for the great yards he put in as England coach. Despite not living in Zimbabwe, he went on to stitch a successful career elsewhere. Zimbabwe have surely missed out on Flower’s brilliance in the latter stages of his playing career and beyond. They still have not recovered from his loss for they will not find another Andy Flower for many more years.