Coffee, cricket and music with Henry Olonga

Coffee, cricket and music with Henry Olonga

“You are taking me for a coffee, aren’t you?” Henry Olonga laughs as we walk into a cafe at O’Halloran Hill, on the outskirts of Adelaide. “And, also some biscuits…,” he adds.

It’s around 10 o’clock in the morning and the cafe isn’t too crowded, with just three tables occupied by elderly people. Sitting at a corner, as we wait for our coffee and of course, some chocolate cookies, Olonga turns on his phone to watch the highlights of last night’s Pakistan-South Africa game. “The league is all spiced up now, man…,” Olonga says, as he watches Shadab Khan on screen.

There is some foot-tapping music being played inside the cafe and as the sound grows louder, we decide to sit out in the sun. Olonga is a professional musician now, and well-settled with his wife Tara and two daughters. While he is now into a different territory, the former Zimbabwe fast bowler does follow cricket.

He was, in fact, at the Adelaide Oval the other day when Zimbabwe played Netherlands in a T20 World Cup to cheer for his team. But it was a heartbreak as the Dutch defeated Zimbabwe quite convincingly.

“When they beat Pakistan, I was amazed. But ironically, one match I go and see, it kind of takes me back to my playing days. I watch them and feel that ‘Hey! We are making the same mistakes as we would about 20 years ago’. The chronic problem that we had when we were growing up was that we were just not good at rotating the strike,” Olonga says.

“I am not saying that it’s an easy thing to do either as the good bowlers with right line and length can bog you down, but as a batter, you have to take initiative. Netherlands just kept bowling in the same spot and we kept missing. It was swinging a little and if the ball is swinging that much, you are gonna miss it. So, you have to do something to get closer to the ball…or just, wait for a bad ball, something that you did in primary school,” he laughs, “But man, at this stage, it won’t happen, especially in T20s…”

In that game, Zimbabwe faced as many as 66 dot balls. “You got 120 balls to try and score 180. In Adelaide Oval, 160 is a par score, because the outfield is a bit slow and doesn’t race away like Perth or some other grounds. And if you had that many dot balls that means you scored that 115 in half-a-ball. And run-a-ball would take you to 150. Are you telling me our guys just play on the straight bat?”

While the disappointment shows, Olonga is happy with the fact that the current lot of Zimbabwe cricketers are at least trying. “I am not being critical and I am very proud of our boys, but this is one thing that struck me while watching the game the other day that we should rotate strike. Dave Houghton has done an amazing job for the side. I don’t know who was there before him. It’s a miracle that they have come so far,” Olonga says.

Houghton took over as the coach of Zimbabwe from Lalchand Rajput in June. It was one of those challenging times for Zimbabwe. The team lost a home T20I series against associate nation Namibia in May, and even before players could regroup, Afghanistan hammered it in T20Is and ODIs, winning both the series 3-0. “The earlier person can’t coach, what I mean is that the team didn’t do well under him, did they? So, Houghton has come in and transformed it into a winning team…”

Musical journey – ‘The Voice’ and struggles with COVID-19 lockdown

As he speaks about the current Zimbabwe team, Olonga goes back a bit about the days when he shifted to Adelaide seven years ago along with his wife. The last few years before the pandemic were exciting for him. Once known for his heroics with the cricket ball in hand, he was now commanding attention with a mic in its place. In 2019, he delighted fans and former teammates with his rendition of Anthony Warlow’s ‘This is the moment’ on ‘The Voice’ on Channel 9 in Australia.

That was his ‘second innings’. He made it to the television show quite surprisingly. Olonga had attended a concert by a police band at Adelaide’s iconic Town Hall. A few weeks later, Olonga received an invitation from The Voice via email.

Someone in the channel had seen his performance at the Town Hall and just wanted to know if he would be going for The Voice auditions. Initially, he was somewhat reluctant because he led a quiet life after cricket. But when he thought about it a little more and spoke to his wife and friends, they said: ‘Ah, it’s a good opportunity…”

Olonga submitted his application and went through the qualifying process, eventually reaching the blind auditions. He did not win the competition, but ended up winning hearts. “In 2019, I went at The Voice and I got through to the third round. It was a good launch pad and later that summer, I had some lovely opportunities coming up through that. I performed here locally in a concert called ‘The Sunset Symphony’ with the Adelaide Symphony orchestra, which for a little old cricketer like me, was quite a privilege,” he says.

Things were looking good until the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March, 2020. “Things really shut down to the point that live performance was quite difficult. People weren’t going out. The federal government came up with a scheme called job-keeper, which allowed artists like me to stay afloat,” Olonga reminisces.

“We got paid some amount to just keep ticking along. That was so helpful to me because they had shut me down in a sense, along with other live performers. I wasn’t alone in it, and I was lucky to get that job-keeper role…”

That kept him going for about a year. “And, then there was nothing… So, 2021 was easily my toughest work. There was no work. I am self-employed, so it’s not that I had a regular flow of income. When people weren’t booking me for shows or public events, I had no work. But we got through because my wife has a good job as a teacher and we just kept going…”

But things have “slowly started opening up” over the last six months. “People are venturing out again and booking the shows. So, I hope this chapter is behind us… I wouldn’t want to have another two years like that…”

He currently runs a YouTube channel and wants to ‘grow that further’ and work on his music and make some short films.

Zimbabwe career, the famous black armband protest at 2003 World Cup and the aftermath

A young Olonga was interested in the stage and regularly acted in plays in high school. But that ended when cricket became his life. In 1995, he was picked for the Zimbabwe national team and became a regular by 1998. His career came to a premature end when he and Andy Flower donned black armbands during the 2003 World Cup to protest what they perceived as the “death of democracy” in Zimbabwe.

FILE PHOTO: Henry Olonga wears a black armband as a sign of protest at the Harare Sports Ground on February 10, 2003, a few moments before the first 2003 World Cup match against Namibia in Harare. Olonga and Andy Flower issued a joint statement at the beginning of their campaign opener against Namibia in protest about what they called the ‘death of democracy”.
| Photo Credit: AFP

After a warrant for his arrest and death threats, Olonga went into exile in England, having represented Zimbabwe in 30 Test matches and 50 One-Day Internationals.

“There was a lot of politics. So, when I left the team, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing. I was told that I couldn’t go on the bus with the team and it was quite petty and ugly. It seemed they wanted revenge because of my stance. They told me not to do anymore political things and I was past it by then. I wouldn’t use the word traumatic, but when I left the team, I was supported by quite a few people. The Lashings World XI was one such… I moved to England. The chairman gave me a place to stay…”

While he stayed in England and did commentary work, he retired in 2003. It took him many years to decide what he wanted to do with his life.

He started a family, would travel a lot in England, talking at various places, talking in schools, cricket clubs, and then at the end of the session there would be one or two songs.

Once in Australia, Olonga’s wife went back to work and he became a stay-at-home dad who dabbled in a bit of music. “My wife teaches at a school, so has to go to work everyday. Because I am a musician, there’s a lot of flexibility with my time. I take the girls to school and then pick them up from school again at 3.30pm. I have just got a boring life like any other normal person. I am not living a life in the fast lane, I am just a normal guy who just drops kids to school, brings them home and also tries to be creative at work…”

How Neeraj Chopra inspired Olonga

At the moment, he is busy composing a few new songs. Also, he wants to get back to athletics. India’s javelin star Neeraj Chopra’s historic gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year has inspired him.

“I saw Chopra at the Olympics and I was like, ‘Wow! A gold medal in javelin from India!’ I was very inspired and I thought it was very interesting for athletics in general and also for India that there’s some good throwers from all over the world. You need to be fit and not be injury prone. It’s similar to fast bowling in many ways, but there’s nothing as iconic as seeing the javelin going through the air… It’s very glamorous to see that 90m!”

“I want to do something as recreation and something that gives me a bit of competition. I thought I would join athletics and I did last year, but I injured my elbow on a fishing trip. That swelling lasted for a few months and that marred my athletics season,” he says.

“This year, I am gonna get back and see what I can do. I am 46 man! But the guy who won the state championships threw 50m, so I think I have a chance. It would be nice to go out there and be competitive and also get the girls involved in sports…”

He knows that age is not on his side, but given his indomitable spirit, Olonga cracks a joke, “Man, who knows you might see Henry Olonga at the Commonwealth Games at the age of 50! You never know…”