A game in turmoil: Plight of Zimbabwe returns to haunt Speed and his chiefs

Darkness falls on the ICC once again as governing body's leading light is brought low over financial accountability

Zimbabwe gets them all in the end. For a country with the bare minimum of international cricketing prowess or credibility – to put it at its most polite – it wields a profound influence, and yesterday it plunged the world game into yet more turmoil.

It is not entirely improbable that this may lead to the World Twenty20, scheduled to be held in England next year, being moved in an artificial attempt to keep the game unified. On the other hand, money and pragmatism may win the day for the same spurious reasoning.

But the divisions are there all right, and the events of the past 48 hours show they will soon need much more than the usual dollop of glue which preserves the unity. The International Cricket Council, frequently maligned unfairly, looked toothless, spineless and shabby.

In pretty characteristic style, they refused to expand yesterday on the reasons behind the early, enforced departure of their chief executive, Malcolm Speed, only two months before his planned retirement. The reason offered was "a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between the CEO and a number of board members, including the president, over a variety of issues that include Zimbabwe."

There is no doubt that above all it was Zimbabwe, and there is equally no doubt that Speed, the clinical lawyer who has steered the ICC through countless crises in his seven years in charge, emerged looking like the good guy. Whichever way you cared to put it, the rest of the world governing body, not least because of an apparent vow of silence or lack of desire to show accountability, seemed a bunch of apologists.

The issue reached a climax because of a clash of personality between Speed and the interim ICC president, Ray Mali of South Africa. But the catalyst had been the independent audit by the accountants KPMG into the books of Zimbabwe Cricket. The ICC board decided neither to take action on this report, which named no individuals, nor to publish it.

The man to whom the task fell of explaining and defending Speed's departure yesterday, as well as trying to portray the ICC as an effective and respected governing body, was David Morgan, the organisation's president-elect, who is due to take over in early July, when Speed was due to leave. It was telling that it was not Mali.

"Mr Speed was clearly uncomfortable with the decisions of the board," Morgan said. "The situation in Zimbabwe is very difficult, I have the greatest sympathy with the people and with Zimbabwe's cricketers, both those who are still playing there and those who have decided to play elsewhere."

But it is fair to deduce that Speed had had enough of Zimbabwe, though his mind might eventually have been persuaded by financial rather than moral imperatives. His view was that there was a lack of accountability and that this, from the leader who took world cricket into profitable new territory, was not listened to said much about the precarious ground the sport is treading even in these heady days of Twenty20.

Before the auditors were sent in, Speed had written in a memo, later leaked: "The accounts have been deliberately falsified to mask various illegal transactions from the auditors and the government of Zimbabwe."

Where it leads now is difficult to predict. It may depend on the UK Government's attitude towards granting an entry visa to Peter Chingoka, Zimbabwe Cricket's controversial president. The delay in doingso has already persuaded the ICC to move their annual conference from London, its traditional home, to Dubai, the ICC's headquarters.

Chingoka was refused a visa last year when he was summoned to give evidence at the umpire Darrell Hair's industrial tribunal (another crisis for Speed). If he is still in office next year and the Government again refuse him entry to watch the World Twenty20, the ICC, on past form, would have to back their member.

"It's a very unfortunate ending," Morgan said. "I accept there is a great deal of speculation but I will be very surprised if the World Twenty20 doesn't happen in England and I'm certain the Zimbabwe president will want to come to it."

It is almost perverse that Zimbabwe should have done for Speed more than any other issue. For it was Speed, cool as an iceberg and as lethal should you be a ship bumping into it, who set his stall out against England when they refused to go to Zimbabwe for the 2003 World Cup.

And it was Speed who regularly reiterated the mantra that Zimbabwe had a right to play and that it was not the ICC's job to get involved in politics. It was Morgan, of course, who had to negotiate frequently with Speed and it was Morgan who out-lasted a former chief executive of the ECB, Tim Lamb, when they could not agree on how to handle Zimbabwe.

But when Speed saw, or thought he saw, financial misdemeanours, that was too much. Mali's opposition – and privately other ICC members have been horrified by his brief tenure since taking over after the death of Percy Sonn last autumn – left him high and dry. The South African took most, if not all, of the ICC members with him. To a man they refused to reveal the results of the independent audit. That of course immediately conveys the impression that there is something to hide.

Zimbabwe, in case it be forgotten, have not played a Test for three years, are woefully weak as a one-day team but still retain full-member rights at the ICC. If you want to talk about sport, and not politics or morals or theft or the sins of old empire, what the hell are Zimbabwe doing there? The ICC chose to do nothing except lose a chief executive. Who knows who may be next? But it will be somebody because Zimbabwe gets them all.

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