Zimbabwe will not be allowed to come to England next year for their scheduled Test and one-day series – but they will arrive a month later to compete in the World Twenty20 competition.
If that sounds an improbable compromise, it is being freely touted. None of the interested parties – the Government, the International Cricket Council, the England and Wales Cricket Board and Zimbabwe Cricket – is anxious to say anything official, but all know which way the discussions are heading.
The ECB are determined not to host Zimbabwe, and while they hope the Government may come to their aid with an official ban, they are unlikely to change their minds if that does not happen. They will be prepared to risk the wrath of the ICC, who have specific rules about the cancellation of tours which are part of their Future Tours Programme, and if necessary will call their bluff over fines and a possible suspension.
If it seems contradictory to ban Zimbabwe from one event but permit them to play in another in the same country only a few weeks later, the ICC are keen to emphasise the difference. They have already met the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to point out the pitfalls of running a global sport, anxious to avoid unnecessary conflict with England.
David Morgan, the former ECB chairman who takes over as ICC president this summer, said: "There is an important precedent. The Indian government for many years were unprepared for their cricket team to play Pakistan in bilateral FTP events. They were perfectly happy for India to be involved in an ICC event that included Pakistan."
Zimbabwe have been a millstone round England's neck for most of this decade since Robert Mugabe's government adopted a tough stance towards land reclamation from white farmers. Its effect on English cricket – England's boycott of a World Cup game in 2003 probably caused their elimination – appears to have been exacerbated because of Zimbabwe's negligible status as a team.
England are aware that the perception of Mugabe and his controversial government in sub-Saharan Africa is different from the feelings expressed by the old colonial master, but the signs are that they will not back down, even if Zimbabwe refuse to accept compensation.
The tour, in any case, is likely to be restricted to one-dayers because Zimbabwe have not played any Tests since 2005 and there is not the remotest hint that they are ready to return.
Morgan said: "There have been two important developments since England last played Zimbabwe in England. Both New Zealand and Australia have refused to host them. That was a landmark decision."
He must wear his ICC hat this time, having previously donned his England cap, and there would be a deep irony if he had to be party to imposing a fine on the ECB. The ICC have their own argument to win about allowing Zimbabwe in for the Twenty20, and are confident of doing so.Reuse content