While their families are running, cricket tourists keep their heads down

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The Independent Online

"Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe - I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen."

The voice behind such fine sentiments was not that of Andy Flower, captain of the Zimbabwe cricket team, which spent its first full day in Britain yesterday as part of a three-month tour. Nor were they the words of Dan Stannard, the team manager, who will try and steer his team through what must be a difficult tour.

The words belong instead to Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, and the man widely blamed for his country's current misery and for creating this unenviable position for his cricket team. "All the guys are worried," Flower said at a press conference at Lords earlier this week. "It is not ideal because we have farmers in the squad and we are all thinking about what has happened.

"It is frustrating to watch television pictures from thousands of miles away but that will not be an excuse for our on-field performance."

Putting aside the team's performance in the two Test matches against England and a triangular one-day series involving the hosts and the West Indies that are scheduled, it is little short of a miracle that the team is here.

The tour was given the go-ahead only last week, following high-level talks between the Foreign Office, the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union.

Then there is the team itself: a third of the players have families who have been forced to leave their farms. Three players - Gary Brent, Dirk Viljoen and Bryan Strang - have farms themselves. A fourth player - Heath Streak, the team's best bowler - has yet to join the team after his father and mother had to flee their 30,000-acre farm to the north of Bulawayo when a neighbour was shot last week. He will join the players later today.

To some, the fortunes of a cricket team touring Britain while the player's home country sinks deeper and deeper into violence and murder may appear unimportant. But the concerns of the team as it prepares to play against Hampshire today, echo the concerns being voiced in Zimbabwe.

"The situation at home is always in our conversations and in the players' minds," Mr Stannard said yesterday evening, as the team arrived at the De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel, in Southampton."[Five players] have close links with the farms. They are obviously worried about their families back home but hopefully it will turn out okay - we must think positively. Now we are here, the cricket is to the fore."

Gary Brent, another of the team's bowlers, has left his family at its farm at Norton, 50 miles from Harare.

"It's serious where my folks are in Norton, there is activity there. It's a dreadful concern while I am so many miles away. I've been ringing and e-mailing them all the time. It is very difficult but we try not to talk about it so much because it is so depressing."

And there are other voices. It would be naive and wrong to pretend that cricket in Zimbabwe is anything other than a sport dominated by the white minority. But observers such as Matthew Engel, the editor of the cricketer's almanac Wisden, believe that the sport has, in recent years, done what it can to attract black players and supporters.

There are four black players in the touring party, among them the pace bowler Henry Olonga, the country's first black Test cricketer. Yesterday he said he hoped that some good could emerge from the growing anarchy at home. "It is about time that something happened in Zimbabwe and it is exciting that loads of people are standing together to campaign for greater transparency and more open government," he said.

"I just hope that it does not get more violent. Change is needed but it could take a while. If that change comes from free and fair elections then everyone will be happy but none of us want it to spill over into violence."

Although Olonga sounded a political note, the approach of the team over the next three months will be to try and keep a low profile and avoid any diplomatic or political issues.

One situation they will be unlikely to avoid, though many might wish they could, will be the invitation to dinner with Zimbabwe's High Commissioner, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi. A High Commission spokesman confirmed yesterday that an invitation would "normally" be made.

In the meantime, the team that was not granted full membership of the International Cricket Council until 1992 will be trying to concentrate on the sport. "We have to think positively and hope things do sort themselves out, and if problems do arise in the future then we will deal with them," said Flower. Though Zimbabwe only have what has been described as a "shallow" squad, they do have the ability to cause an upset - as they have proved to England in the past.

It would be asking too much of them to fulfil Mr Mugabe's apparent dream of creating a nation of gentlemen.