Cricket: ICC ends exile for Gatting and his rebels

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WHETHER or not Graham Gooch makes himself available for England's winter tour to India, it is odds-on that Mike Gatting will be on the plane in December after the International Cricket Council's five-year ban on Gatting's 1990 South African tourists was cut in half yesterday, from April 1995 to 1 October this year.

Gatting, who collected something between pounds 150,000 to pounds 200,000 for going to South Africa, would be an automatic choice for England on current form (five centuries and a first-class batting average of more than 100 this season), although of the 15 players who accompanied him, only half a dozen are likely to merit the selectors' attention when they sit down to pick their Indian tour squad in September. Among those would be Chris Broad, Neil Foster, and Matthew Maynard.

The decision to end the players' bans on the earlier of the two mooted dates (1 April next year was the later one) is fully in line with the ICC's fondness for the soft option, as it proved by its pathetic response to Pakistani dissent, from Javed Miandad in particular, during the Old Trafford Test. Incidentally, the ICC's 60-year-old stand-in referee, Conrad Hunte, resides in that well-known hot-bed of Test cricket - Atlanta, Georgia - and could be excused if he were slightly out of touch.

On the Gatting issue, the Test and County Cricket Board's chief executive, Alan Smith, is not exactly in touch, according to the chairman of the players' union, Tim Curtis. Smith said that the Board's player-soundings on Gatting's early release had been favourable, although Curtis said yesterday that 'most players were against lifting the ban'. He added: 'If they come straight back, it is going to cause a few ripples.'

David Graveney, who was player-manager on the Gatting tour, said: 'The ban should have stayed at least until April.' It would also be a surprise if Gatting himself was not surprised to have the slate wiped clean so soon.

Gatting's failure to regain the England captaincy in 1989 after Micky Stewart had informed him that the job was his again (Ossie Wheatley, chairman of the cricket committee, applied his veto) was the major reason for him succumbing to South Africa's advances, but while he will almost certainly add to his 68 Test caps in the near future, his prospects of leading the side again remain remote.

The 35-year-old Gatting was saying very little yesterday. 'I have no regrets about going to South Africa, but obviously I am very happy to be available for selection again.'

However, the thorny question for the selectors, particularly as the last tour to India, in 1988, was cancelled when Graham Gooch's South African connections upset the Indian government, is whether picking Gatting this winter might have the same effect. The Indian Cricket Board joined in yesterday's unanimous vote for an October release, but Indian politics is another matter altogether.

Sir Colin Cowdrey, the ICC chairman, said yesterday that the decision to halve the sentence on Gatting's team (and around 16 others who played and coached in South Africa) was 'part of the conciliatory move forward across the cricket world. We felt that the sooner the slate was wiped clean, the better'.

The other major decision taken at yesterday's meeting was the admission of Zimbabwe to full Test- playing status. Zimbabwe's first Test will be in India later this year, although England may be trying to avoid them for as long as possible. The Board voted against Zimbabwe's application, probably through a combination of their lack of box-office appeal and their full membership giving the non- white nations a voting majority.

This will have more impact when the ICC's two founder members, England and Australia, concede their right of veto. Yesterday, Cowdrey announced that they had agreed to this in principle, although with an accompanying clause that was vintage ICC.

'The agreement of the UK and Australia is however subject, as a condition precedent, to agreement being reached by all Members, including the UK and Australia, on appropriate provisions being included in the Rules of ICC to safeguard the position of Members arising as a consequence of abandonment of the special voting rights of the two Foundation Members.'

Clear? As this appendage would probably have defeated one of MI5's decoding machines, we can only hazard a guess that it means the founders will not give up the veto unless the full members (now nine) continue to hold more power than the myriad associates.

A decision on the venue for the next World Cup (England or South Africa) is due this morning.