Challenge SPORT

Courage, conviction and life after cricket

Former Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olonga had the natural talent to do many things, but it was his faith that helped him do the really hard things.

Henry Olonga
Henry Olonga bowling for Zimbabwe during their match against New Zealand on the 6th day of the 11 nation International Cricket Council (ICC) tournament in October 2000 in Nairobi. Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

At 19 years of age fast bowler Henry Olonga created the double milestone of being the first black person to play test cricket for Zimbabwe, as well as being the youngest ever player to represent his country.

But when he made his debut at the famous Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) last year it was not to bowl a ball but to sing opera! He was performing Nessun Dorma at a charity dinner.

As Henry says, the 'game of life' is a lot like the game of cricket. "Cricket is a more unpredictable game than most sports – as the tide can turn very quickly."

And the multi-talented Zimbabwean, who is not only good at sport and music, but acts, paints, directs films and is a sought-after public speaker and published author, has seen his life take some interesting turns.

In 1994 he abandoned his athletic and rugby ambitions to take up cricket on the advice of his coach, because there was an opening in the Zimbabwean national side.

However, a year later he was called for "throwing" in a test and was required to spend time altering his bowling action under legendary Australian quick bowler, Dennis Lillee.

Henry went on to play 30 Tests and 50 one-dayers for Zimbabwe, although he is best remembered for his protest in the 2003 World Cup, which brought his international cricketing career to an abrupt end.

Henry and teammate Andy Flower wore black armbands during a match against Namibia in the World Cup to "mourn the death of democracy" in Zimbabwe. They also released a 450-word statement slamming Robert Mugabe's regime, exposing the torture, false imprisonment and starvation that occurred under his leadership.

As a result, allegedly a warrant was issued in Zimbabwe for Henry's arrest on charges of treason. Death threats followed, forcing him to go into hiding and later to flee to exile in England. He has never been back home.

Henry's courage is still admired in the cricket community.

"Courage comes in a lot of different forms in sport, you've got the courage of a batsmen who faces up to fast bowling, you've got the courage of a Denis Lillee who has a bad back injury and overcomes that, but the courage to say I'm going to stand up to a leader who is notorious, I may never go back to my country, I may never see my parents again, the courage to make that sort of decision, I can't comprehend that," former Australian Test captain Ian Chappell told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Cricket historian Mike Coward says Henry should be proud of what he did.

"There are very few sportsmen and sportswomen who are remembered for something above and beyond their achievement out in the middle as it were and he will always be remembered for that," he said. "He had the courage as a young man in a very difficult environment to stand up."

That courage of conviction came from Henry's belief in a loving God who requires those who serve Him to stand up against injustice.

As a young man, Henry went through the typical search that most people pursue in answer to the three biggest questions in life: Where did it all begin? What is my purpose here? What happens when I die?

But after a brief flirtation with yoga, achievement-driven goal setting, music and other pursuits to try to find satisfaction, he turned his life over to the one true living God.

“Life is a lot like
cricket ... the
tide can turn
very quickly”

It was a night in December 1992, when he came to a point of crisis as a 16-year-old at a Christian youth camp.

"I felt deeply convicted that I needed to put something right with the Lord Jesus. So I [asked God to forgive my sin (wrongdoing) and take charge of my life] and since my conversion I have been living a Christian life that has known God's blessing," Henry explains.

autobiography
Henry Olonga’s autobiography

Henry loves to share with cheerfulness and a sense of seriousness the truth about how God has faithfully preserved and sustained him, and what God can do for all who are humble enough to call on His name. He tries to use his story and songs to point people in the direction of the good news of Jesus Christ's death on the cross for their wrongdoings, and the abundant life they can have through His resurrection from the dead.

Part of Henry's story includes the years he was plagued with back injuries. "That was one of the darkest times I have ever known," he says.

However, one Sunday while at church, he was prayed for and, although his back problems were not miraculously healed (they did resolve over time), he was given a clear direction and purpose for his life.

"I felt that God told me that through sport I would have the opportunity to speak to many people, (about my Christian faith) and that He was going to take me to many places," Henry recalls.

That has certainly proved true. Henry now lives in Adelaide with his Australian wife, Tara, and their two children, and pursues a career as a house husband, public speaker and singer. His autobiography, Blood, Sweat and Treason, was released in 2010.

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