Blair refuses to hand England way out of Zimbabwe tour

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Tony Blair said yesterday that he did not want England's cricketers to go ahead with their scheduled tour of Zimbabwe. The Prime Minister's comments, however, like those made last week by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, fell short of what the England and Wales Cricket Board were hoping to hear, which was an order to call off October's intended visit to the troubled African country.

With the ECB having no legitimate fears over safety and security in Zimbabwe, Government intervention is the only way in which England could cancel the tour without being heavily penalised by the International Cricket Council. If England fail to tour for any other reason they are likely to receive a substantial fine and a possible suspension from the ICC.

The fall-out from this, which could range from anywhere between £1.2m and £50m, depending on who you believe, could have a catastrophic effect on the game in England.

Replying to a question from Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats opposition party, Blair said: "My personal opinion ..., as I said then [when England were due to play against Zimbabwe in Harare during the 2003 World Cup], that we would prefer ... them not to go. But there is a difference between doing that and ordering them not to go which I think would step over the proper line.

"The Foreign Secretary is meeting the ECB today, I think many people however believe, I think rightly, that the problem actually resides with the ICC."

It is not expected that today's meeting between Straw and the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, will change the ECB's decision which is to reluctantly go ahead with the tour.

The ECB's inability to act decisively over Zimbabwe, along with the proposals to change the structure of county cricket, has led many influential people within the game to question the positions held by David Morgan and Tim Lamb, the chairman and chief executive of the ECB. These problems have raised suggestions that Mike Soper, the deputy chairman of the ECB and current chair of the first-class forum - the body which represents the 18 first-class counties - will stand against Morgan in September, when a new ECB chairman is due to be elected.

Soper has so far refused to comment on whether he will stand, but having vied to replace Lord MacLaurin 18 months ago, it would be safe to say he has ambitions for the job. On that occasion, however, Soper's views of making "cricket bigger than football" were overlooked for those of Morgan.

The roles and views of Lamb and John Carr, the director of cricket operations, are also being questioned by the counties, who, ultimately have the power to agree with or kick out proposals.

There is a feeling among the county chairmen that they are being ignored and that Lamb and Carr are working against and knocking county cricket rather than building it up. And by doing so they run the risk of losing the support of the people who could decide their future.

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