ECB calls for clearer lead on Zimbabwe stance

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The Independent Online

Downing Street last night rebuffed pleas to ban English cricketers from playing in Zimbabwe in the autumn.

Downing Street last night rebuffed pleas to ban English cricketers from playing in Zimbabwe in the autumn.

For the second time in two years, the Government has been plunged into a political row over whether the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) should fulfil planned fixtures in the southern African state. The International Cricket Council has signalled that the ECB could be fined at least £1.1m and be suspended if they refuse to play.

The only justification the ECB would have for scrapping the tour would be if the Government forbids the journey. But as the ECB and opposition politicians called for a clearer lead from the Government, Tony Blair's spokesman insisted it did not have the right to ban the tour. He said: "The Government has stated it would not support a tour and has underlined our concerns about the humanitarian problems in Zimbabwe but this is a decision for cricket.

"We believe what we have said is clear. We will continue to talk to the cricketing authorities, as we have done for some months."

Ministers have recently spelled out in strong terms their concerns about the wisdom of the proposed trip in the light of the nature of Robert Mugabe's regime. They include Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, who complained of the "appalling human rights" record of Zimbabwe and that the situation there was "bleak and deteriorating".

The ECB believes that the effect of the Government words can be interpreted as banning it from undertaking the tour. David Morgan, the ECB chairman, said: "While the ECB has not yet taken a decision in regard to the scheduled tour to Zimbabwe, it now believes that it would have a justifiable reason for postponing the tour under the force majeure provision contained within the ICC procedures, in that the tour does not have the approval of the UK Government.

"The ECB has received a letter from the foreign secretary that has been widely interpreted as constituting specific advice not to proceed with the tour, because it would be inconsistent with the Government's and the EU's policy in respect of Zimbabwe."