I was still a schoolboy when I read Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ about the Salem Witch Trials that unfolded in Massachusetts in the late 17th century. I found it terribly disturbing that someone unelected, unqualified and unaccountable could, on a whim point a finger, and that individual’s life was instantly destroyed. Once the accusation was made, there was little or no chance of redemption. But then I reminded myself, humanity had moved on, people had learned from their mistakes, and our world had become a more orderly and empathetic one, with legal systems in place to protect the innocent. How utterly wrong I was.
In Miller’s play Abigail was the terrifying finger-pointer; in the case of Zimbabwe born, former England opening bat Gary Ballance, it is Azeem Rafiq, a Yorkshire team-mate who has accused his once close friend of racism because he called him a ‘Paki’. This has triggered a media and political firestorm in the UK and beyond, with Ballance excoriated, vilified and condemned in the court of woke opinion. His reputation has been wrecked, his future career hangs precariously in the face of attacks from politicians, journalists and cricket administrators calling for swift punishment to be meted out; and some are suggesting Ballance be compelled to receive help with his mental health. Sponsors are cutting ties with the club, Grant Shapps the Transport Secretary has called the allegations ‘very serious’; and Health Secretary Sajid Javid has insisted ‘heads must roll’ while accusing Yorkshire Cricket of trying to conceal their ‘crimes’ following an official internal inquiry which concluded the word had been used in the course of acceptable banter between two good friends. In the course of the investigation it was disclosed Rafiq routinely mocked Ballance with ‘Zimbo’,but using an insulting diminutive of a white person’s country of birth is deemed acceptable and non-racist in today’s cancel culture.
I have known the Ballance family virtually all my life. Gary’s grandfather Hugh, also a fine sportsman, finished school in Bulawayo and immediately joined the rush of young Rhodesians who volunteered from afar to fight for Britain in WWII. Such was the overwhelming response to join up that some applicants were denied enlistment for fear the colony would collapse due to the exit of too many able-bodied males. Selected for the air force, he entered the Empire Air Training Scheme which had been set up in Rhodesia to provide safe airfields with good weather to train pilots.
Having won his wings he joined 266 Rhodesian Squadron and flew combat operations in the Western Desert, Italy and later over France. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation reads: ‘This officer has completed many sorties on his second tour of operational duty, involving successful attacks on the enemy’s railway installations, mechanical transport, airfields and radar targets. He has displayed commendable skill and courage and throughout his devotion to duty has been unfailing.’
After the war Hugh returned to Rhodesia with medals but no money and rode around the Eastern Districts on a bicycle looking for work. He was taken on by Gerald Timms as a farm manger in the Inyazura (now Nyazura) farming area near the town of Umtali.
Gerald had been a soldier in one of the first combat tank regiments deployed in WW1 and married a nurse he met during the hostilities before emigrating to Southern Rhodesia at the end of the war to go farming. Cricket already ran rich in the Timms family veins. His brother John ‘Jack’ Timms, an all-rounder, played for Northamptonshire as an amateur and professional and played in a Test Trial in 1932. Many felt, but for the Second World War, he would have played for England.
Having saved enough, Hugh bought a farm from Gerald, married his daughter Daphne and started growing tobacco. Simon, Gary’s father is the youngest of six children (four boys and two girls), all of whom were gifted sportsmen and women. Richard, the oldest, was a Nuffield (Rhodesia Schools) player in 1967.
Following Ian Smith’s declaration of UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) in 1965 and the imposition of economic sanctions farmers throughout the country struggled with fuel rationing and the newly enforced block on trade. Never Ian Smith supporters, Hugh and Daphne were highly respected within the community and hugely popular with the local Africans for their work in building clinics and schools and attending to the welfare of their employees.
With the intensification of the ‘Bush War’ in 1975 their security situation deteriorated drastically. During this time Hugh and the Ballance boys were mobilised for military duty. With Hugh absent much of the time, a manager was needed to help run the farm and look after the women and children, but he was killed in 1979 in an enemy ambush riding to work on his motorbike. Romantically involved with Gary’s aunt Sally, Ken Hogg’s death was a blow to the family and the district community. This killing came only months after the murder of the Ballance neighbours, the Eksteens, and close family friend Rose Hacking. Despite adversity, weekend club cricket in Rusape and Umtali continued to thrive and it was out of this community that the Currans grew their game.
After the end of the war in 1980 Hugh and Daphne moved to Umtali (now Mutare) and brothers Tim and Gerald took over the family estate while Simon and his wife moved to nearby ‘Leigh-Farm’ a year after Gary was born in 1989. Bruce and Dylan were born after Gary and all were schooled at Springvale near the farming town of Marondera. At home, cricket with the children of the farm-workers became a favourite pastime. On all the Ballance farms, schools, clinics and sports facilities were built for the labour.
The Mugabe-ordered ‘land-invasions’ commenced in 2000 and white farmers throughout the country were forcibly displaced. Tim and Simon weathered the storm until the end of 2003 when they were forced to abandon their homes and lose their livelihoods. ‘Leigh-Farm’ was taken by a politically connected religious sect and has been completely destroyed.
After Springvale Gary went to Peterhouse and then Harrow for his last two school-years thanks to the help of his ‘Uncle’, former Zimbabwe cricket captain Dave Houghton. At the time he showed more promise as a leg-spinner and was picked for the Zimbabwe Under 19’s. Zimbabwe cricket was in normal turmoil with political selections rife, so Gary chose the calmer waters of Yorkshire.
Unlike Rafiq, this man has borne the brutal brunt of real racism for much of his life. He was only 14 when he had to come to terms with losing his home and the life he loved because he was the son of a white farmer; his family had been ethnically cleansed in the purest sense of the term. Had they been Muslim or black there would have been international outrage, but they were white Christians, so most of the world cheered.
He had to leave his country of birth because talent was no guarantor of selection. The Zimbabwe Cricket Union was manifestly corrupt and eschewed merit in favour of race as a primary selection criterion. This misgovernance of the game in the country was allowed to continue because of tacit support from Pakistan among other cricketing nations.
Despite all this, he, like most Zimbabweans, has tried to bury the past and bear no grudges. He thought his accuser was a true friend with whom he could exchange banter during tough cricket moments. When his friend developed the ‘yips’ and lost confidence, Gary was the first to recommend a trip to Zimbabwe for intensive coaching. The Ballance family met Rafiq at the airport to welcome him into the country and the family cottage and vehicle were put at his disposal for the duration of his stay. He regained confidence and returned to the first team. When his bowling subsequently declined, Gary who was now captain, was obliged to drop him. Rafiq immediately cried foul, declaring racism and filed for damages.
In the broader sense this leaves one wondering how this will affect the great game; will selectors henceforth be reluctant to drop people of colour for fear of similar responses. Will team-mates desist from making close, trusting friendships across the colour divide for fear of subsequently being accused as racists; and if so, will they be condemned as racists anyway?
Like the rest of the Ballance family, Gary is a good and kind man, who loves people and loves to laugh. He epitomises so many of the qualities that were once quintessentially British but are now abandoned. The fact that he is now condemned by England’s politicians and media, attracting the opprobrium of millions of his countrymen, says more about them than it does about him.
Hugh Balance must be rolling in his grave wondering why he risked his all to save England from one brand of fascism, only to be replaced by another.