Henry Blofeld: Bravado, bullies and bad breath - the day of my 'exclusive' interview with Robert Mugabe

Henry Blofeld
England captain Mike Atherton is presented to Zimbabwe's despotic president, Robert Mugabe -  Getty Images

On Boxing Day 1996, the TMS team gathered at the Harare Sports Club for the second Test - an occasion I shall never forget.

On the second day President Mugabe himself came to lunch and met the players. He had also agreed to be interviewed at the ground by the assembled press, and Peter Baxter selected me to interview Mugabe. The process was going to be heavily policed, although obviously with the international press there we were likely to be in for a display of bravado.

First, a cavalcade of at least 12 of the vulgarest-looking cars I have ever seen streamed into the ground. The first – the vulgarest of all – produced Mugabe in the shiniest of dark suits. From the other cars there erupted platoons of thugs in ill-fitting two-piece pale-grey suits with sinister bulges up by the shoulder.

With a collective scowl, they distributed themselves around the place and you would not have wanted to pick an argument with any of them. As the members of the media attempted to mount the stairs, a few of these less-than-svelte gentlemen watched us closely and there was a bit of jostling. The heavies seemed to regard Peter Baxter, who was strung about with outside-broadcast equipment, with particular suspicion.

Test Match Special producer Peter Baxter was not popular with Robert Mugabe's henchmen Credit:  Getty Images

Peter and I took up our stance at the front of the throng of journalists and waited. In order that BBC should appear to have been given an exclusive interview, I was to ask the first half-dozen questions before the press joined in. The thugs were now strutting around again and some of them began to flex their muscles. One or two people who were not journalists were rudely and firmly dispatched downstairs. Then one of the thugs, wearing an ungovernably hostile pair of dark glasses to complement his scowl, advanced on me, gesturing at the microphone in my hand.

"What’s that?" he asked, without a great deal of charm.

I told him it was the microphone through which I was about to interview his president.

"You come with me," was his blunt response.

It was an invitation which was going to be difficult to refuse. I looked quickly at Peter, who pointed sharply over my left shoulder. I followed his gaze and, lo and behold, there was Mugabe, shuffling towards me. Was I the only person in the room who had actually been saved by Robert Mugabe? I stood my ground facing the president. I later wondered how my thug had taken his leader’s arrival, seeing as he had been forced to watch his catch wriggle off the hook at the very last moment.

Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe - not a cricket fan Credit: AP

Mugabe had been warned that I was his starting point and he had come straight across the room to me. Baxter had told me that it had been agreed that no political questions should be asked. In one way that let me off; in another it made it more difficult. I was not certain how I should address him, so I played it safe.

"When did you last come to a cricket match, sir?" I asked.

"I can’t remember," was the helpful reply.

I cleverly countered with, "Do you enjoy cricket, sir?"

"No," was the uncompromising answer. It was going awfully well.

I soon discovered that if ever at the Olympic Games there were a competition for spitting, Mugabe would be guaranteed a place at the top of the rostrum. I was having to use my microphone to ward off the gobs that were not flying over my shoulder.

Robert Mugabe had 'truly memorable halitosis' Credit:  Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

"Have you ever played the game, sir?" I tried next.

"No," he said, taking half a step towards me and enveloping me in a truly memorable cloud of halitosis.

I took a deep breath and changed course: "What games, sir, did you enjoy playing when you were young?"

"Tennis," was the reply. Thank heavens, we were up and running.

He talked about playing tennis against and beating his predecessor as president, the splendidly named Mr Canaan Sodindo Banana. I suggested that the next time they played, the Centre Court at Wimbledon should be the venue. A reluctant rictus grin now appeared and with it another surge of halitosis. Trying not to breathe in, I asked if Sir was happy to meet the press.

My journalistic friends took over, the rictus grin reassembled itself as a scowl and I moved sideways out of halitosis range. Thus ended one of the more inspiring exclusive interviews ever undertaken by the BBC.

Over and Out by Henry Blofeld is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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