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The many silences of Heath Streak

Former Zimbabwe cricket captain and coach, Heath Streak

Heath Streak had never heard a silence so loud. It was March 2018 and Zimbabwe had failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. Missing out was a matter of both pride and money.

It would be the first time in Zimbabwe’s history that they would not be at the tournament. It doesn’t matter that they have never been expected to win; World Cups are a rare chance for them to test themselves against the best – and occasionally to beat them. It is also one of the few opportunities to add to Zimbabwe Cricket’s bank balance, which otherwise runs close to empty in a flailing economy. For the World Cup, the participation fee was US$100,000 and for every match won, teams earned an extra $40,000. Zimbabwe could have lost every match they played and still returned home with enough money to, for example, pay the salaries of the coaching staff for a year.

Streak, who was head coach at the time, and his support staff, which included Lance Klusener (batting), Douglas Hondo (bowling), Walter Chawaguta (fielding), Stanley Chiwoza (analyst) and Sean Bell (strength and conditioning), voluntarily gave up their salaries for more than a year leading in to the qualifiers, in an attempt to mitigate against pay cuts for players. They figured that if the cricketers were not worrying entirely about money – there was still some concern because they were on reduced pay – they would be able to fully focus on their performance. If that happened, Zimbabwe would give themselves the best chance of qualifying, and if that happened, everyone would eventually get back what was owed to them. The incentive to get there was strong. Even though there were a lot of ifs, it was a reasonable plan; it could even be viewed as a case of deferred payments. In reality, it backfired badly.

“It was just really terrible when we realised we would not qualify, especially because it had been a tough tournament in so many ways,” Streak says from his home in Bulawayo in June 2021. “There was no DRS and we had a horrendous decision against West Indies: [Sikandar] Raza was bowled off a no-ball. That defeat made it difficult for us, but we weren’t the only team to struggle without the reviews. Scotland were also on the receiving end of a few bad decisions.

“Then we got to playing against the UAE. They scored 235, which was going to be tough to chase anyway. There was a major storm at lunch and our target was revised to 230 from 40 overs. The ball was swinging and it was tough batting and we fell short. We just couldn’t believe it. Afterwards, in the change room, it was the longest bit of silence I’ve heard.”

A week later, Streak and his entire staff were sacked, in what he claimed were unfair dismissals. “When I was hired, one of the things that came up in my interview was how I would be judged. I asked how the board would deem success because I needed what I was asked to do to be realistic and achievable.

“Zimbabwe had a 20% win ratio in the two years before I took over, and I was told that if I could double that, it would be unbelievable. Most top teams work on a win ratio of 50-60%”

Streak was hired in October 2016, and took over from Makhaya Ntini, who served in an interim role after Dav Whatmore was sacked that June. According to Streak, the ZC board chair, Tavengwa Mukuhlani, and the managing director, Faisal Hasnain, did not specify any other performance criteria.

“We also spoke about the World Cup qualifiers and we understood that the World Cup had moved from 14 to ten teams and that there would be some really good teams in the qualifiers, but there was never a stipulation of qualification being the requirement to continue. Up to the World Cup qualifiers, our win percentage was 37 and we won an ODI series in Sri Lanka after 17 years, so I felt I had done what was expected of me.”

Still, Hasnain sent Streak an email on a Friday at the end of that March, giving him and his staff an ultimatum to resign by 3pm that day or be sacked. Hasnain himself resigned less than a month later, citing the team’s inability to qualify for the World Cup. By then, Streak had launched a court case against ZC, demanded the board be dissolved to pay debts, including the money he was owed, and lodged a defamation claim against Mukuhlani, who had accused Streak of being a racist. Although it was the last of those allegations that stung Streak the most, it transpired that the absence of funds was also a significant issue. Three years later, he would be banned for eight years after admitting to accepting two bitcoins worth $70,000 and an iPhone from a man the ICC recognised as a corruptor, and multiple breaches of the ICC’s anti-corruption code. Streak said he had provided information on, among other tournaments, the 2018 Afghanistan Premier League, which took place six months after the World Cup qualifiers. By then, he was without permanent employment, still unpaid by his former employers and embroiled in legal proceedings against them.

Streak hasn’t said it and neither has anyone else, but it’s not difficult to see a connection between the dysfunction of this last coaching stint and his transgressions thereafter, which have not only scarred his reputation but also changed the nature of his relationship with cricket.

How did it come to this? Had it been building from back in 2004, when he stepped down as captain of Zimbabwe and walked out amid a transformation storm, only to return a year later? Or were the roots laid a decade later, when Streak was overlooked in succeeding Alan Butcher as the men’s head coach, despite a successful tenure under Butcher as bowling coach? Was it because he was then compelled to take temporary posts and start an academy in Bulawayo, rather than, as many of his contemporaries had done, look for more permanent employment abroad? And, most complicatedly, did it get to this point because of his devotion to the land of his birth and the soil of his soul?

Streak is fluent in Ndebele, the language spoken by nearly four million people, mostly black Africans across Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana. That may not seem like a remarkable thing to say about a Zimbabwean, even a white Zimbabwean, but it is. It’s not just that Streak can speak and listen, or ask and answer but he is fully fluent in the language. He jokes in Ndebele and knows its nuances.

He is unusual, says Chris Mpofu, because he speaks Ndebele more than he does English. “When we [the team] would go to his farm, we would find him speaking Ndebele to his dad,” says Mpofu, who played five internationals alongside Streak in 2005 and was coached by him. “It was actually pleasing to see white people love something that is part of us and our culture.”

Streak’s paternal great-grandfather, originally from England, bought land in the Turk Mine area, 60 kilometres north of Bulawayo, in 1896. Over four generations, the Streaks’ have farmed cattle and founded a safari company, with zebra, wildebeest, kudu and giraffe roaming their terrain. As white people on African soil, the Streaks recognise the privilege they hold in their title deed and the fact that most of Zimbabwe’s majority black African population do not own any land at all.

That’s a legacy of the country’s colonial past, but things have changed over the last 40-odd years. The war of liberation that led to independence in 1980 brought Robert Mugabe to power as Zimbabwe’s first black president. Initially he led over some of the country’s most fruitful years, which saw it prosper agriculturally (Zimbabwe was once known as “the breadbasket of Africa”). Eventually, though, Mugabe also oversaw the country’s decline, as he slowly transformed into a cruel despot. Under him, in 2000, the government introduced its first land-reform programme to appropriate white-owned farmland and redistribute it among the black population. The Streaks’ farm was among those affected. More than 70% of their land was seized, and though the family protested initially, they have since come to reflect on their own positions and accept that some of their wealth had to be given up.

“We had some of our land taken but we were still left with some,” Streak says. “I believe we are very lucky to have a farm, so we will just crack on with what we have left. My dad and I are very committed to the farm and community.”

There remain some cattle, a safari park, and a primary school that the Streaks built with the help of some donors from New Zealand.

Denis Streak is 72, played 14 first-class matches for Rhodesia, and currently represents Zimbabwe in lawn bowls. He continues to take care of much of the day-to-day running of the farm, in circumstances that vary in the degrees of difficulty they impose. For the last two decades, Zimbabwe’s economy has been ravaged by hyperinflation and economic sanctions. In the last 20 months, the coronavirus pandemic has further depleted what little foreign currency was coming in. “Things are tough,” the younger Streak admits. “It’s really not easy. With Covid-19, tourism has been almost non-existent.”

Streak, though, is famously apolitical. He’s not going to blame the post-independence regimes of Mugabe, and now Emmerson Mnangagwa, for the country’s struggles. He played no part in Andy Flower and Henry Olonga’s black-armband protest against the death of democracy at the 2003 World Cup, and didn’t even know of their intentions until the morning of the match, when the game had already begun.

In an interview to the Independent that same summer, when he was leading Zimbabwe on a tour of England, Streak maintained that sport and politics should not mix.

“I do have opinions, and I have been affected both politically and economically by what is going on,” he said in that interview. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea to make a big song and dance over cricket because of what is happening politically. People may not like that, but it doesn’t mean I’m insensitive to the issues. And I know that there are a lot of people in my country who only have cricket to look forward to. They like seeing the national team playing against England or Australia. It gives them pride in their country, and they get some relief from watching sport.”

It was a remarkable line, given the history of his own team and country, and the stance doesn’t seem to have changed since.

Streak could be accused of simply being naïve. Critics might argue his is a perspective born of white privilege, that he is able to ignore the politics in the personal. Or it could be a strategic pose, the fine line Streak walks between cricket and the corridors of power.

David Coltart, Zimbabwe’s former sports minister and a close friend of Streak’s, says there is no basis for this latter speculation. “He is not political at all. He would never think of running for office, for example,” Coltart says. “But he wants to get the job done and realised that to get the job done, he had to have people on both sides.”

Coltart speaks of Streak’s ability to connect “people who loved cricket but also people who are politically connected”, though he notes that Streak’s straddling of those divides extends further than that.

“The most important thing about Streak, and it sets him apart from every other white player in Zimbabwe, is his ability to span the racial, and to a lesser extent the ethnic, divide [between the Ndebele and Shona tribes – Zimbabwe’s two largest indigenous groups]. He is fluent in Ndebele. That has been a huge benefit for him. It’s not just that he is fluent but he understands Ndebele culture and it’s given him a remarkable opportunity to reach out to black players in particular. To that extent, he has been one of the greatest unifiers.

“You know, if you get a group of white men together in a change room, when they don’t have to be politically correct, you quickly get to understand who the real racists are. Heath is not a racist. Look at his ideas around land [on losing land in the reforms].

“He exudes warmth, and through that, he has managed to reach out, particularly to black and other minority players in a way that, with the best intentions in the world, someone like Andy Flower or Grant Flower was never able to do.”

Mpofu is a good example. He was still a schoolboy when he met Streak in 1999. He had always admired Streak, and in 2003, when he bowled to the national team in the nets, he got to know Streak better. It was an interesting time for the two to be forming a bond, not least because Zimbabwe cricket was pulling apart at the seams, along racial lines.

Although plans to push affirmative action had been afoot since Zimbabwe gained independence, they only really crept into cricket in the late 1990s. In his paper “No-ball! When Transformation, Indigenization and Politicking Overstepped Into Zimbabwean Cricket”, independent researcher and academic Admire Thonje, who works on social issues in Zimbabwe, argues that former ZC chair Peter Chingoka and former managing director Ozias Bvute were “partisan officials” who drove transformation but believed their methods were motivated by a particular political agenda. Although Thonje recognises that because the racial mix in Zimbabwe’s national cricket side had hardly changed from its all-white composition between 1982 and 1999, which made affirmative action necessary, he concludes that Chingoka and Bvute’s methods were “problematic,” that they divided players into two camps, for and against inclusion. Streak, these administrators decided, fell into the latter category because he expressed serious concerns with the running of Zimbabwe cricket – those concerns, however, were about the dysfunctional nature of the board rather than being racially motivated.

On April 2, 2004, reports emerged that Streak had threatened to resign as captain unless ZC met certain demands, including a review of the national selection panel. By April 4, it was unclear whether Streak had stepped down or been sacked, and what followed were ten days of high drama. Denis Streak denied that Streak gave ZC an ultimatum, ZC claimed Streak had retired, and replaced him as captain with Tatenda Taibu. Denis then hit back with an accusation that ZC had unlawfully terminated Streak’s contract. On April 14, 2004, 13 Zimbabwe players, all white, including Streak, issued a lengthy statement, explaining why they were effectively walking away from Zimbabwe cricket. Later that month Zimbabwe hosted Sri Lanka. Taibu captained, and in the third ODI the side was bowled out for 35. If Streak needed a sign that he need not look back, this was it.

Cricket in Zimbabwe was in free fall with the exodus of white players and their experience, leaving behind a gap that was filled by poor results and prejudice. Most who left had access to, or had already obtained, British passports and could end their careers on the county circuit. That option was open to Streak too, and he signed a deal with Warwickshire, where he took 13 for 158 on debut, won the county title in his maiden season, and returned for three more years.

And yet that life wasn’t enough for him.

He returned to Zimbabwe less than a year later. None of the others who left with him came back, which says as much about how they had moved on with their lives as it does about Streak having not done so. Willingly, though a wealth of other opportunities was available to him, he chose to play for the demoralised national side; a team that had been hollowed-out, stripped of its core, and one that would spend most of the next decade trying to rebuild. That was the team Mpofu made his debut in.

Streak played the final ODI in a series Zimbabwe had already lost, and the only ODI he and Mpofu would play in together. “It was in Port Elizabeth and I had never been to a place that windy,” Mpofu remembers. “We opened the bowling together and I was bowling into the wind and it was blowing me backwards. Streaky said we should switch ends because he was a heavy guy and could push the wind away.”

When Deepak Agarwal, identified as Mr X by the ICC in various anti-corruption cases over the last few years, first made contact with Streak in September 2017, he did so under the pretence of wanting to start a T20 league in Zimbabwe. He asked if Streak would be interested in a joint business venture. As it happens, Streak had been thinking of a T20 league for Zimbabwe for years, and he jumped at the chance.

“There hadn’t been any form of T20 tournament in Zimbabwe for over three years, which is actually a stipulation by ICC for countries to access full funding,” Streak says. “I ran a T20 competition at my academy in Bulawayo, which drew in some Harare guys, but we wanted something bigger. We didn’t necessarily want it to be the same as the IPL, BPL or CPL but something that would have allowed domestic players to be seen and play alongside emerging international players. And it could have made ZC and Zimbabwean players money in the right environment”

For a short period in the years leading up to that offer, the environment looked right. In the first half of the 2010s, the country and its cricket went through a wave of relative stability. The 2008-09 power-sharing agreement between Mugabe’s ZANU PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, promised, if not democracy, then stability. One of the key features of these years was the dollarisation of the Zimbabwean economy, which, in short, meant slightly more money, which meant slightly more opportunity for everyone, including ZC.

In August 2009, Streak was appointed Zimbabwe’s bowling coach and was thought to be the preferred candidate to take over the main job. But in February 2010, ZC appointed Alan Butcher, with Streak remaining in his role. As Zimbabwe prepared to end their self-imposed isolation from Test cricket and further professionalise the domestic game, this constituted what ESPNcricinfo called, at the time, a “sense of normality”.

The next year was a marquee one for Zimbabwe. Although they had a poor World Cup, in August that year they enjoyed a successful return to the longest format with victory over Bangladesh at home. They hosted Pakistan and New Zealand in an unusually busy home summer. Later that season, ZC secured the services of Chris Gayle, Shaun Tait, Ryan ten Doeschate and Dirk Nannes for their T20 domestic league, sponsored by Stanbic Bank.

However, the corporate backing didn’t last long. Stanbic Bank pulled out after the 2011-12 season, an early sign that things were not all that normal; the next season the tournament ran unsponsored, and the season after, it wasn’t played at all. Since then Zimbabwe has only staged a T20 competition three times. This is the landscape Streak believed had to change.

First, he found himself on the outside again when his contract wasn’t renewed after Butcher’s tenure ended. He headed to Bangladesh, where he worked for a while as bowling coach. But as before, he didn’t feel entirely satisfied unless he was doing something in Zimbabwe, and so he used his downtime in 2014 to set up what would, were it not for the revelations of 2021, come to be seen as his most enduring legacy.

The Heath Streak Cricket Academy in Bulawayo is Streak’s love letter to Zimbabwe, a top-class facility, aimed at developing talented cricketers and ensuring the national talent pool spreads outside the capital, Harare. He set it up in a tough financial environment, Zimbabwe being a forbidding place for investors, using his own money and some fundraising, including with government backing.

The academy is controlled by a trust that includes people on either side of the political divide. “The composition of the trust is fascinating,” says Coltart, who is part of the body. “He was at pains to include me. There’s also a ZANU-PF MP and another person who is very close to [current president] Mnangagwa. As I said, Heath knows how Zimbabwe works and has always been a bridge builder.”

Despite this reputation and the fact that he had set up an academy, Streak continued to be overlooked for jobs with the national team, as they cycled through Andy Waller, Whatmore, Stephen Mangongo and Ntini as head coaches. All the while, Zimbabwe’s results got worse. Among the lowlights in that time was losing all eight matches on a tour to Bangladesh in 2014, losing home and away ODI and T20 series to Afghanistan, and losing players, most notably Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis to Kolpak deals.

Eventually, after more administrative mishaps, they did circle back to Streak. He was appointed national coach in October 2016 on generous terms. He was also allowed to continue working as bowling coach of Gujarat Lions in the IPL and to take on other short-term deals, ZC perhaps safe in the knowledge that Streak would – could – never be away for too long.

There was still no T20 tournament in Zimbabwe when he took over, and not one by 2019, after Streak had been sacked. That was the year he started work on a business proposal with Agarwal.

“We were going to call it the Safari Blast, and look at playing it in the window just before the IPL,” Streak says. “It would give players who wanted to get match-ready for the IPL that opportunity and would work well as pre-season time for the England summer. We pitched it to the then-CEO, Faisal Hasnain, and presented something to ZC.”

According to the ICC’s investigation, at this time Agarwal also made it clear to Streak that he was “involved in betting on cricket”, and requested Streak’s bank details. Streak makes no mention of this critical bit of information, and as he did to the ICC, reiterates simply that he “made it clear in these discussions that he wanted to establish a T20 League in Zimbabwe and was passionate about furthering cricket in Zimbabwe”.

Herein is the crux of the case against Streak: the relationship he formed with Agarwal and his subsequent breaches of the ICC’s anti-corruption code. That, although there can be little doubt about the nature of Streak’s transgressions and the motivations that drove them, it is possible to believe that at some level inside, he was also driven by a genuine desire to better the game in Zimbabwe; that he really did believe Zimbabwe needed a T20 league and that he was going to help set it up.

Unlike so many former Zimbabwe players, Streak never left. Each time he could have walked away, he came back. If he was a mediocre player, you might say he had no other option. Yet he stayed back and eventually – cruelly, perhaps – that decision led to his downfall. This isn’t to absolve him; just that as an irony, it is difficult to ignore.

Over the next year the Safari Blast project stalled but Streak’s communication with Agarwal did not. The ICC’s investigation found that Agarwal contacted Streak during the 2017 BPL for contact details of team captains, owners and players in that league. Though Streak was not coaching in the BPL, he had previously worked as Bangladesh’s bowling coach and was well acquainted with their players. Agarwal promised Streak they could “earn good money as a result of which they could invest in a T20 event in Zimbabwe”. Streak provided the details of three players, including a national captain, and the ICC’s decision found that Streak “knew or should have known that Mr X [Agarwal] may use these details to contact these players and request Inside Information from them for him to use for betting purposes”.

Streak says he made a mistake and puts it down to naivete.

“I was overly trusting. There’s a lot of things that you might say to your wife or your dad, and if they were a gambling people, they could do some of those things. I should have been a lot more conscientious [about] what we are privy to, and that we have information that can be used. This is the sad reality of professional sport. People gamble on sport and it’s big business. Everyone is trying to get any edge they can.”

Agarwal’s attempts to get an edge continued for another year. He asked for player references for the 2018 PSL and the 2018 Afghanistan Premier League (APL). Most damningly, in return, Streak accepted two bitcoins worth $35,000 each and an iPhone, as gifts. By December 2018, the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit had been in contact with Streak and notified him he would be required to attend an interview. The ICC found that Streak and Agarwal had coordinated on what they should say in this interview.

All put together, the trail of the case and the sheer weight of evidence against Streak blows holes through a defence of naivete, or that he was simply too gullible and that a corruptor took advantage of his eagerness to start a league. There is enough to show that Streak must have known more about Agarwal and his intentions than he has let on, and that he was, ultimately, complicit.

It took another two and a half years for the ICC to complete their investigation and impose an eight-year ban on Streak. That, he reckons, is as good as a life ban.

“In eight years I will be 55 and I think it will be difficult to get back into coaching at elite level then.”

Streak is now dealing with fallout that unfolds in multiple layers.

“A lot of people understand that I was abused by someone who had taken advantage of me,” he says, continuing to play the victim. “But there are people who I thought would reach out, even to express disappointment, who haven’t. So this has shown me who my true friends are. It’s been character-building and enlightening. I can’t think of anyone who has said to me directly that I am an idiot.”

Coltart says so, if in words not so blunt. “I was disappointed in Heath. It was a serious lapse of judgement. He should have known better. He should have realised that this was very dangerous territory.

“I was disappointed for him because it has severely undermined his credibility, and he is a man I respect. You don’t care too much when a scoundrel is caught out but that doesn’t apply to Heath.”

Outright nasty things have been said elsewhere. “One article equated me to Hansie [Cronje] and that was hurtful,” Streak says. “I didn’t do anything that affected the result of any part of any game. If I was helping somebody by saying I’d get my bowler to bowl a wide, then I can influence the match and that would be asking a guy to underperform. I never did that. In fact, I would happily do a polygraph to prove my innocence. Possibly something others should be forced to do, like the great Steve Waugh once suggested.”

Zimbabwe Cricket, with Mukuhlani still as its chair, responded to news of Streak’s ban with thinly veiled glee. The statement the board sent out on the day Streak’s sanction was announced said it was “an episode that may well go down as the darkest day in Zimbabwean cricket”, and that Streak had shown himself to be a “corrupt, greedy and selfish character who regrettably abused his status and position in pursuit of dirty benefits”. The country’s Sports and Recreation Commission asked the National Prosecuting Authority, the agency that deals with state prosecutions, to look into whether there might be a criminal case against Streak (although an observer well versed in the law in Zimbabwe confirms no such action can be taken).

Most consequentially, Streak’s dalliance with Agarwal has hit where it will hurt him most: his academy, his relationship with his beloved homeland, and his family.

“His parents are absolutely devastated by this,” Coltart says. “They love cricket; it’s in their bones, in their blood, so to have something like this happen, it goes to their very core. His mom was in floods of tears after the academy trust meeting.”

Streak’s parents remain involved in the academy but Streak himself is not, and for Coltart, that is the most worrying outcome of the whole saga. “I was also disappointed for the academy,” he says. “It has been hanging by a thread for ages, in this political and economic environment. It is an ongoing battle to keep it going, and I knew this would severely damage the ability of the academy to continue.”

For now, the academy continues to exist and has produced several players at age-group level, including under-19 captain Jonathan Connolly. It is being run by Streak’s former agent Joseph Rigo. “My name has been withdrawn from it, so there is no reason for corporate sponsors to withdraw,” Streak says. “I hope it can survive.”

He spends his days running the farm and fishing.

“I’ve always fished. I haven’t been able to do it as much because of cricket but now I am doing a lot of bass fishing and entering a few tournaments. I can’t say I am okay but I am keeping busy and doing stuff.”

Is he done with cricket? Not if you ask Coltart.

“He stayed in the country. He ground it out. Much as I have got affection for Andy and Grant Flower, they are not here. They left the country. Heath is here. So I hope that sentence can be reduced, because the sooner he is available to come back, the better for Zimbabwe Cricket. And personally, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Heath.

“There’s not one single person who doesn’t have a lapse of judgement at some stage. It’s just deeply saddening. Some people deserve what they get, people who you know are just an accident waiting to happen. That was never Heath.”

Is Streak done with Zimbabwe? We don’t have to ask anyone but history for the answer to that.

There’s a saying on the continent that you can take a person out of Africa, but you can’t take Africa out of a person. There are few people who exemplify that more than Streak. It’s clear in any conversation with him how much he loves Zimbabwe, the endless blue skies of a city like Bulawayo, or the deep silence of the African bush – even if he fears it’s that silence he will hear a lot more in the future. – espncricinfo

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent. You can follow her on @FirdoseM