Zimbabwe: A terribly British problem

Bangladesh has just announced its touring team to play two Tests and five one-day internationals in Zimbabwe next month. Namibia has just completed a series of five matches in Zimbabwe against the national under-19 and A teams. Meanwhile, England is fretting over the prospects of touring Zimbabwe in October.

The Zimbabwean cricket team is currently in Australia for the VB Series, making its second trip to that country in three months. The Zimbabwean soccer team is currently in Tunisia for the African Cup of Nations, and lost their opening game to Egypt on Sunday. They had to change their travel plans from Harare to Tunis when the British Government refused to give them transit visas to make a stopover at Heathrow en route.

The same British Government is currently leaning heavily on the England & Wales Cricket Board to cancel the October tour of Zimbabwe, refusing to force them to withdraw, but telling them that the decision is theirs. So long as it is the correct decision.

The British Government’s treatment of the ECB, far from being democratic, is at once cowardly and bullying. Traits that can be seen – albeit in much more brutal fashion – in Robert Mugabe’s administration.

The government, the opposition parties, expert opinion and a broad public consensus in the UK all lean towards taking a strong moral stand against Mugabe’s despotic rule over Zimbabwe. The ECB has contractual obligations to the ICC and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union and the responsibility to conduct its business – that of administering the game of cricket in England and Wales – in a financially sound manner. But the question that needs to be asked here is: Why does the question of sporting ties with Zimbabwe seem to be an uniquely British problem?

Since the March 2002 presidential elections, when Mugabe was re-elected in dubious circumstances, two international cricket teams have cancelled visits to Zimbabwe. Australia cancelled its tour scheduled for April 2002 on security grounds, before England’s forfeiture of its World Cup game in Harare in February 2003. Australia did honour its World Cup fixture in Bulawayo.

Other national cricket teams that have visited Zimbabwe since March 2002 are: Namibia (Oct 2002, World Cup and Jan 2004), Pakistan (Nov/Dec 2002 and in the World Cup), Kenya (December 2002), South Africa (‘A’ team, Jan 2003), India (World Cup), Netherlands (World Cup), and the West Indies (Nov 2003). In none of these countries was there any significant concern about sending sporting teams to compete in Zimbabwe.

Namibia, whose path to independence mirrored that of Zimbabwe, is one of its closest allies. President Sam Nujoma has publicly supported Mugabe’s land seizure policies and famously berated Tony Blair publicly at the World Summit in Johannesburg in September 2002, accusing Britain of creating the problems in Zimbabwe. The perception that Britain is being paternalistic towards a former colony is one that is shared in many countries.

Following the Bangladesh tour of Zimbabwe next month, the Sri Lankan team will visit in April. The Australians are scheduled to return in May and June to complete the two-Test, three-ODI tour that they called off in 2002. The next visitors after that are due to be the English, in October to fulfill their committments to the ICC Test Championship.

Cricket Australia has already announced that the sole consideration for calling off their coming visit to Zimbabwe will be the security of the touring party – exactly as it was when they visited for the 2003 World Cup, and when they did not visit in 2002. Despite bipartisan support in Australia’s federal parliament for not sending sporting teams there, Cricket Australia has remained focussed on the issues of security and contractual obligations as factors in completing their tours.

No matter how indifferent the rest of the cricketing world is to the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe, feelings are so strong and widespread in the UK that it seems that England’s tour in October is now untenable. The legal implications for the ECB could, however, be devastating. There is a school of thought that the ECB has already made a binding agreement with the ZCU to make the tour as part of deal ensuring that Zimbabwe toured England in May-June 2003.

The possible scenario that the ECB faces is that they will be forced to pay substantial compensation to the ZCU for cancelling the tour, and that this financial loss would reduce the amount of money paid out to the counties and grassroots development programs in England. The ICC, under a protocol thrashed out by its executive last year, allows for cancellations for security reasons where its own security experts support that recommendation. It also allows for cancellations due to government intervention – this allows India an escape hatch over its past inability to play against Pakistan. It doesn’t allow for boards to withdraw without mutual agreement of their opponents for any other reason.

And this is an issue critical to the way in which the ECB finds a resolution to its problem. If they go ahead with their tour of Zimbabwe they will face widespread condemnation in England, possible ongoing demonstrations, and the possibility of the loss of Vodafone’s sponsorship once their current contract expires. If they choose to cancel the tour, they face the prospect of a crippling compensation bill and possible reprisal from other ICC member countries.

If the British Government directs them to cancel the tour, then the ECB’s liability to the ICC and ZCU will have been removed. In my view this is the course of action that should take place. The execution of foreign policy is the government’s business. The ECB’s business is to administer the game. The government should not use coercion to force anyone into making its own “correct” decision.

If the government does not intervene, and the ECB’s management board does decide next month to proceed with the tour, then it is time for everyone to respect that decision and get on with things. Under no circumstances should Michael Vaughan or any other of the England players have to become involved in the decision-making process.

Government intervention could, however, have other implications for cricket in England. If the Foreign Office has recently refused transit visas to the soccer team, will they allow the cricket team to visit England in September for the ICC Champions Trophy? And if they don’t, will pressure be made to bear within the ICC to move the tournament elsewhere?

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