Dejected England head for Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

England's players will land in Harare this morning to begin their controversial tour of Zimbabwe, but it is clear that they do so with heavy hearts. The England and Wales Cricket Board agreed the tour should go ahead, following the Zimbabwe government's decision to lift its ban on certain sections of the British media, but the players then held a two-hour meeting at the Emperor Hotel near Johannesburg airport yesterday afternoon at which it seemed possible they might refuse to go.

Afterwards, however, the players confirmed they would tour, but Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, speaking on their behalf said: "What has happened in the last 24 hours has been very disappointing. It has saddened the players for a number of reasons. They are disappointed that the Zimbabwe government decided at the last moment to drop a bombshell by refusing to give certain members of the media accreditation.

"It has been reported that a spokesman from the Department of Information in Zimbabwe stated that this was a political decision. To the game of cricket this is utterly unacceptable. Sport and music are often used to convey world messages, but cricket and cricket players have sent a powerful message to the Zimbabwean government, and to supporters of cricket as well.

"It is naïve to think that politics and sport do not mix but you are able to draw a line in the sand and say that some things should not cross it. And using players as political pawns is unacceptable."

The England captain Michael Vaughan and his squad will leave and fly to Harare. A new itinerary is yet to be confirmed but Zimbabwe Cricket has requested that England play back-to-back one-dayers at the Harare Sports Club over the week, to make up for the abandoned match which was originally scheduled for today.

The England squad were placed in this unenviable position after the Zimbabwe government lifted its ban on the BBC and several other media organisations yesterday morning. The BBC journalists flew to Zimbabwe last night and were allowed into the country.

The ECB said it was delighted with the decision to supply 13 journalists with the accreditations they wanted. But English cricket's governing body finds itself in what what it believes to be a no-win situation. A withdrawal could leave the ECB facing a heavy fine and possible suspension from international cricket. By going ahead it will receive huge criticism from people at home.

"We are aware of people's feelings at home," said John Carr, the ECB's director of cricket operations. "We have to take part in this tour to fulfil our contractual commitments, with regards to the Future Tours Programme. The goalposts were moved when the media accreditation issues arose because we were assured this tour would not be politicised. That issue has now been resolved and we are back to where we were before it arose. We believe now that the tour has to take place."

Before it became clear that the media ban would be lifted Ehsan Mani, the president of the ICC, had told David Morgan, the chairman of the ECB, that some ICC members had shown sympathy towards the ECB's predicament, but the feeling was not universal.

Of England's players, Vaughan was placed under the most pressure. The England captain represents the views of the team and leads by example, and he spent most of yesterday involved in crisis meetings with other members of his team, and officials of the ECB.

While Vaughan put across the views of the players, the remaining squad members drifted around the hotel desperately waiting for an outcome. Cricketers hate indecision and each attempted to take his mind away from the serious issue in front of them by going to the gym, playing tennis and reading a book by the hotel pool. Darren Gough even got sunburn.

But they could not keep away from the hotel lobby ­ where the press had gathered ­ for long and kept returning, hoping to find out whether any decisions had been made.

The players had been aware that this issue was far from over on Wednesday evening when Morgan had instructed them not to travel to Zimbabwe. But they did not receive the reassurances they were looking for until late in the afternoon.

Carr had initially travelled to Harare with Morgan, to sort out the accreditation fiasco. But once the pair heard of the unrest among Vaughan's side, and the possibility they could rebel and refuse to travel, Carr was sent to Johannesburg.

He did not arrive at the hotel until 3.30pm but he was immediately ferried into a meeting with Vaughan, Bevan and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach. Ashley Giles, England's left-arm spinner, joined me on a comfortable sofa in the hotel lobby and compared the situation to Cape Town in 2003, when Nasser Hussain's side refused to travel to Harare to play a World Cup qualifying match.

Giles is one of four members in this squad who spent a traumatic week in the Cullinan Hotel holding meeting after meeting. At least this horrible episode lasted only two days.

The players gathered at 4.50pm and were whisked into a conference room, where they were talked through what had happened and were given the chance to express any reservations they had. This meeting finished at 6.45pm and each player re-entered the lobby holding an A4 ECB headed piece of paper. With the exception of Vaughan, who looked weary, they appeared relaxed.

Within 10 minutes the ton of kit England's cricketers take on tour with them began to reappear in the hotel reception, and the piece of paper had nothing sinister on it, only the team's travelling instructions.

The Zimbabwe government's reason for its change of heart contradicted its position on Wednesday, when it stated that certain media organisations had been banned for political reasons. But yesterday it said that it had been given insufficient information from these applicants, and now everything was in order. However, the media covering this tour ate together on Wednesday evening and nobody filled in any new forms.