ECB dilemma as Zimbabwe lose Test status

England's cricketers still face a dilemma over whether to tour Zimbabwe this autumn despite the African nation's decision to withdraw from Test cricket for the remainder of the year.

England's cricketers still face a dilemma over whether to tour Zimbabwe this autumn despite the African nation's decision to withdraw from Test cricket for the remainder of the year.

The move, taken under pressure from the International Cricket Council following the boycott of the Zimbabwe team by senior players, does not apply to one-day internationals, of which England are scheduled to play at least three during the tour, originally due to take place in October and November.

However, the ICC is prepared to launch an investigation into claims of racism in Zimbabwe's selection policy, which could lead to Zimbabwe being suspended from all international cricket.

Last night, a spokesman for the England and Wales Cricket Board, insisted that the ECB could "not take a definitive position" until after the ICC's Executive Board meets at the end of this month.

Within the England dressing room, it was clear that players would await developments before commenting. Contracted spinner Ashley Giles said: "We heard about it after we came off the field but we will have to wait and see what the board says. It is out of our hands at the moment."

Meeting in emergency session in Dubai yesterday, an Executive Board sub-committee recommended that Zimbabwe's remaining fixtures for 2004 be deferred amid fears that fielding inexperienced players in Test matches would damage the integrity of the game. It follows a dispute between 15 players and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, which led to a Test series against Australia being cancelled.

Zimbabwe had to field raw youngsters, mainly black, in a home series against Sri Lanka and three one-dayers against Australia, losing every match.

The ICC president, Ehsan Mani, stressed, however, that Zimbabwe's withdrawal was only temporary. "Zimbabwe will continue to play Test matches according to the ICC's 10-year programme from January 2005 onwards," he said.

The ECB has been wrestling with the moral issues linked to touring troubled Zimbabwe since before the 2003 World Cup, when concern over the policies of president Robert Mugabe led to England failing to fulfil their scheduled fixture in Harare.

Fear of heavy ICC penalties for failing to tour has put the ECB off making a decision despite the Government's view that England should not go. Last night the ECB maintained its ambivalence. "This is merely a recommendation which will go before the ICC Executive Board on 30 June for further discussion. It is too early for the ECB to take a definitive position," a spokesman said. "David Morgan, our chief executive, will be there as a representative and will listen to the debate and take part in it."

What the ECB will want to establish is whether withdrawal from a tour of one-day matches would trigger the same level of punitive action by the ICC as it feared would result from failing to fulfil Test fixtures.

The ECB had been worried about possible crippling financial penalties, the loss of September's ICC Champions Trophy, and even a ban from Test cricket should England not go to Zimbabwe, although it had indicated that should players decide as individuals not to take part, their own futures would be unaffected.

Zimbabwe have been forced to pick a second-string team since 2 April when 15 white players made themselves unavailable over what they see as racially driven selection policies. Their stand was sparked by Heath Streak's removal from the captaincy after he questioned the make-up of the selection panel.

An ICC statement issued last night said that "allegations of racism against the ZCU had been addressed directly" and that a recommendation would be made to the Board to appoint "an eminent person or persons to fully investigate the claims made by the players."

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