Report By Abc of Cricket’s UK Correspondent Neil Robinson 28/04/03
The official confirmation Zimbabwe’s imminent tour of England is to go ahead will have eased the ECB’s worries about further financial embarrassments for the time being. But, the political headaches are far from over. The fall-out from the tawdry goings -on surrounding England’s non-participation in that infamous World Cup fixture in Harare (probably the most famous cricket match never to have taken place) has left a sour taste in a lot of mouths both in the UK and in Africa, and with a much weakened Zimbabwe squad arriving next week for two Test matches and a triangular one-day series, there has been little chance for the bitterness to wash away.
With the English cricket season barely a week old, there has hardly been time for the implications of another encounter with Zimbabwean cricket to impinge upon the public consciousness, but murmurs of concern are already beginning to make themselves heard. In a newspaper column this week, former sports minister Kate Hoey, denounced the ECB’s “mercenary approach” in confirming their invitation to the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, and called for the tour to be cancelled, with the fixtures fulfilled by Kenya instead. Ms Hoey, normally an entertaining and erudite read on the subject of cricket, appears to have overlooked the fact Kenya are not a Test playing nation and that, as such, the ECB have no right to offer to play a Test series against them. Furthermore, it seems likely the prevalent spirit of pan-African solidarity, which has prevented most governments on that continent from voicing even the smallest criticism of the Mugabe regime, would lead to the Kenyans rejecting such an invitation anyway.
Nevertheless, Ms Hoey states she will be manning the barricades for planned protests at the Lord’s and Chester-le-Street Test matches in a month’s time. By then, who knows how big an issue this could have become. Tim Lamb, the ECB’s embattled Chief Executive, says he has received a letter from the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, in which the government gives its blessing to the Zimbabwe tour. No doubt he will be waving the document in the air at all opportune moments, much as another piece of paper was when Neville Chamberlain declared “peace in our time” back in 1938. It is a curious u-turn for a government, which kicked up such a fuss in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. It isn’t difficult to imagine another volte face should public opinion turn against the tour.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of why cricket alone has been subjected to these pressures, given the continued participation of Zimbabwean teams in other sports such as football and athletics, the protesters are clearly looking back to the example of the “Stop the ‘70 Tour” campaign, which successfully forced the abandonment of South Africa’s cricket tour of England, 33 years ago, leading to a lengthy isolation for the Springboks. Of the two sports closest to the hearts of white South Africans, cricket was by far the more committed and successful in its efforts to boycott and put pressure upon the apartheid regime. Although, a similar boycott against Zimbabwe now might put equal pressure on Mugabe and his cronies (though pity poor Zimbabweans if the pressure took 20 years to tell), it is unlikely to happen. Any such proposals would get short shrift from the likes of South Africa and India, whose governments have found little fault with the actions of Mugabe’s so-called war veterans or his starvation of his own people. But, to be fair here, it took England and Australia long enough to get round to acting against an apartheid system, which had refused to countenance mixed participation sport for decades.
If the ECB, under pressure from government and public opinion, were to press for an outright cricket boycott of Zimbabwe, it is possible, no more than that, they might gain support from Australia and New Zealand. The chances of anyone else following suit are miniscule. England would in all likelihood end up more isolated than Zimbabwe. The financial penalties already accrued by the World Cup boycott would be followed up by further costs, estimated by Tim Lamb this week to run to at least £7 million and with the cancellation of England’s tour of Zimbabwe in October 2004 sure to follow, the damage would not end there. Nor does it take great political insight to surmise that action taken solely by England would fall neatly into Mugabe’s propaganda line, that his country’s problems are entirely the result of a former colonial power attempting to reassert its influence in Africa. None of this bodes well. While the ultimate cause for which the anti-tour campaign will be demonstrating is a just and a proper one (a free and democratic Zimbabwe), one can only hope those demonstrators will pause to think of the tremendous damage they could do to English cricket and the framework of the world game itself, should they achieve their aim of getting the tour cancelled. Given that the British public and all major political parties here already embrace the goal of ousting Mugabe, unlike those in some other parts of the world, perhaps they would serve their cause better by holding their demonstrations in New Delhi or Johannesburg.
But, this whole sorry business has had an “it’ll all end in tears” feel to it from the very beginning. Far too little attention was paid to the likely political fall-out, of England playing a World Cup match at a venue just over the road from Robert Mugabe’s home. Having elected not to take the moral stance of refusing to play on ethical grounds, it was a dreadful mistake for England to then back out because of vague threats from a shadowy group whom no-one had ever heard of before and from whom nothing has been heard since. None of the other visitors to Zimbabwe voiced such concern and all the matches there passed off in relative peace. England’s actions made the ECB appear indecisive and ineffectual, they made the players seem insular and fearful. With the tournament itself entirely absent from terrestrial TV, this was the only element of the World Cup to reach the public eye in Britain and the damage it did to the image of the game, has probably been as great as that to its finances.
One might well ask what any of this has to do with the cricket. When the new democratic South Africa emerged from long years of isolation, most cricket fans breathed a sigh of relief that the game didn’t have to concern itself with politics any more. How wrong we all were! How far we have come from the time when sport was supposed to act as a unifying force bringing together disparate, quarrelling nations in the sprit of brotherhood and peace. In ancient Greece, warring states were obliged to lay down their arms and set aside their differences, while the games were in progress at Olympia. They did so and sometimes they used it as an opportunity to negotiate. In that distant, far more brutal time, politics gave way to sport. Now, in our more modern, supposedly more civilised age, it is quite the other way round. I can’t help wondering if we’ve got it wrong.