News and opinion by Neil Robinson 04/10/04
There canít be many individuals left in England who would still argue that top-class international cricket ought to continue to be held in Robert Mugabeís Zimbabwe dictatorship. Curious then, that it should be the England & Wales Cricket Board which appeared to be doing the most to ensure the England side to play a series of one-day internationals in Mugabeís benighted country next month will be strong enough to justify official international status. The strength of their opponents is another matter entirely.
The strong moral stance taken by leading fast bowler Steve Harmison in declaring himself unavailable for the tour could, and perhaps should, have led to a rash of similar decisions by his team-mates and the sending of a seriously second-rate touring party, which would at least have been a declaration of disapproval by the players if not the board. But, in a series of back-room compromises recalling the great days of imperial diplomacy (perhaps Mr Mugabe and his cronies would quibble about the word Ďgreatí), ECB Chairman David Morgan and Chairman of Selectors David Graveney managed to ensure that the bulk of Englandís first choice squad will make the trip. So a tour that really ought not to be taking place at all will now go ahead with the effective full support of the UK authorities.
It was always likely that Harmisonís lead would be followed by his good friend Andrew Flintoff. But Flintoff was spared the agonies of decision by coach Duncan Fletcherís inclusion of him on a list of players who were to be Ďrestedí in advance of the tour to South Africa later this year. Also on this list were opening batsman Marcus Trescothick, spinner Ashley Giles and captain Michael Vaughan. But, in a clear signal that the ECB wished to avoid charges of sending a second-rate team, Vaughanís resting was overruled by Morgan and Graveney and he will lead the team as usual. Once it was confirmed that Vaughan would tour, Giles, who is the captainís closest friend in the team, opted to tour as well, so as to be there to offer the captain his support. Trescothick was thought to be considering a similar choice, but wiser cousel prevailed.
From the beginning of this sorry affair, the ECB has appeared terrified of the possibility of having sanctions levied against them for cancelling the tour, or for sending out a sub-strength side. The very action taken by the ICC against Zimbabwe will have given them further cause for concern, their suspension from Test cricket being the result of poor standards on the field, rather than political concerns. Had the ECB dispatched a touring squad featuring few senior players, or none at all, might England too have suffered suspension from international cricket? Perhaps, or perhaps not. And probably not unless the side were so weak as to be defeated by Zimbabwe. But the question marks will have been prominent enough to cause a few sleepless nights in St Johnís Wood.
There will be few people at the ECB who have not at some stage felt battered and bruised by the Zimbabwe affair. Memories of the World Cup debacle 18 months ago were stirred afresh this week by former captain Nasser Hussain, whose forthright new autobiography is ruffling feathers in committee rooms and commentary boxes across the land. Outgoing ECB Chief Executive Tim Lamb took both barrels of Hussainís latest twelve -bore full in the chest in the shape of some strong-worded criticism of his handling of the affair. Lamb, a decent and considerate man, expressed himself ďsaddenedĒ by the former skipperís words, but he can hardly have been surprised. As for poor David Morgan, the whole business blew up just a few weeks after he took over the job from Lord Ian MacLaurin, and he has been gripped in its drooling jaws ever since.
Say what you like about the level of competence displayed by the ECB over the course of this matter, they have found themselves placed in a near impossible position. Public opinion in the UK has long favoured abandoning sporting links with Mugabeís Zimbabwe. Sports fans here remember well the long and worthy boycott on sporting links with apartheid South Africa, something felt less keenly perhaps on the Indian subcontinent which had never had the benefit of such links on the first place. But while the ECB would like nothing better than to fall into line with public demand and cancel the tour, the ICC has stuck to its guns and insisted that only in the event of an official UK government instruction not to tour would withdrawal be acceptable.
Now this is where the fine differences in political culture between west and east come in. On the Indian subcontinent national cricket boards are inextricably linked with government politics. Their functionaries are generally political appointees, bound by loyalty and by law to follow government instruction. In the UK it is a different matter entirely. The ECB is an independent organisation whose powers are devolved to it by the 18 professional county clubs, it exists in complete separation from government and is not beholden to it in any real way. As such, the government has no actual power to instruct the ECB to cancel the tour or to impose any sanctions upon it after the event. No such ban or sanction would stand up in court. Margaret Thatcher tried to get the British Olympic Committee to join the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow games (in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), but to no avail. If she couldnít pull it off then no-one could.
I donít believe for a minute that any of this is news to the people at the top of the ICC or of those national boards which continue to offer succour and support to Mugabeís vile regime. Stupid people do not get to run such bodies. But there are plenty of other faults a person can have besides stupidity. Mob rule, violence, targeted starvation and intimidation are facts of life in Zimbabwe today. Certain people in prominent positions in world cricket seem to have no problem with this or to think that cricket can remain aloof and detached from it all. Some of these people twenty or thirty years ago would have been defending the boycott of South Africa with all the gravity they could muster.
So here are a few brief questions for those people to ask themselves:
1. Do you still believe that the apartheid era boycott of South Africa was an appropriate and effective measure?
2. What are the differences which made the boycott of South Africa right at the time and make a similar boycott of Zimbabwe now wrong?
3. If the current racial and domestic situation in Zimbabwe is not bad enough for a sporting boycott to be imposed, then what would have to happen there, or in any other state, for a boycott to become appropriate?
Most of all those questions should be directed to the United Cricket Board of South Africa, who wake up every day to experience the benefits brought to their country by the apartheid boycott, yet who, in a gesture of the most appalling cynicism, have refused to let the England team prepare for the Zimbabwe tour in South Africa. The idea, presumably, was that England should have to spend as much time as possible in Zimbabwe to make their embarrassment and discomfort yet more lengthy. England have instead made alternative arrangements in Namibia.
One final thought. Prominent among the figures involved in the Zimbabwe wranglings during the last World Cup was Professional Cricketers Association supremo Richard Bevan. Both he and the PCA have been notably silent this time around. A pity this. Strong action from the PCA, possibly going as far as an organised player boycott of the tour, might have forced the ECB to stand their ground rather more firmly. But it is probably too late for that now. Short of some bold bit of gamesmanship by the ECB (naming the vigorous anti-Mugabe & Gay Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as tour manager for example...), it seems certain now that this shabby, unworthy tour will go ahead. An old fashioned notion perhaps, but itís just not cricket.
England Touring Squad to Zimbabwe
England is scheduled to play 5 one-day internationals in Zimbabwe, starting on November 26th in Harare.