England's controversial cricket tour of Zimbabwe looks set to be cancelled after Michael Vaughan's squad were last night instructed not to travel to Harare.
England's controversial cricket tour of Zimbabwe looks set to be cancelled after Michael Vaughan's squad were last night instructed not to travel to Harare. This remarkable about-turn by the England and Wales Cricket Board was made 90 minutes before Vaughan's 14-man party were due to leave Johannesburg airport for the Zimbabwean capital.
It comes in the wake of the Zimbabwe government's decision to ban several media organisations, including the BBC, from reporting on the England cricket team's planned visit to the country.
Despite considerable opposition in Britain, David Morgan, the chairman of the ECB, has been determined that this tour should take place. The International Cricket Council has recently brought in binding contracts, which state that countries can only withdraw from scheduled tours through government intervention or on grounds of safety and security. A failure to follow these rules could lead to heavy fines and possible suspension from the ICC, and this could cost the game in England millions of pounds.
The financial fall-out from this, along with the chance of regaining favour among other ICC members, has been the main reason for the ECB's stance. After the Zimbabwe government's decision on Tuesday, it has not been clear whether the ICC saw the issue of media accreditation as sufficiently serious for the tour to be cancelled by the ECB. This is why Morgan has been in Harare, where he is attempting to put pressure on Zimbabwean officials to change their decision and allow the British media to enter the country.
Several newspapers have been denied accreditation - The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Daily Mirror - but their selection appears arbitrary. "Bona fide media organisations in the United Kingdom have been cleared, but those that are political have not," said George Charamba, the secretary for the Zimbabwe Information Ministry. "This is a game of cricket not politics. Those who want to bowl us out of politics will have to do it in the political stadium... and its fixture will be in March next year."
Morgan will have been encouraged by comments from Ehsan Mani, the president of the ICC, who suggested that cricket's governing body would be sympathetic to England's plight when he was interviewed yesterday. "This is very disappointing," Mani said. "We have been in communication with Zimbabwe Cricket for a couple of months and we had no indication until Tuesday that a large number of journalists would be refused entry. There would be a huge amount of sympathy [for England] after the way this matter has been handled by the government of Zimbabwe."
The tour, which was scheduled to incorporate five one-day internationals, is yet to be officially cancelled but it is hard to believe that tomorrow's match against Zimbabwe will go ahead. After spending most of yesterday afternoon locked in crisis meetings at Johannesburg airport, England's players spent last night at a hotel in the city. But before being able to relax they had to wait a further two hours for their luggage to be hauled off flight SA 024.
The ECB emphasised that it made this decision, but there is a strong feeling it pre-empted a possible rebellion from Vaughan's squad. These England cricketers - Stephen Harmison withdrew from the tour for moral reasons, whilst Andrew Flintoff and Marcus Trescothick were rested - were prepared to visit Zimbabwe as long as they were not being used as a political tool by Robert Mugabe's government.
But this changed once the ban was enforced. Several senior players believed that the Zimbabwe government was now using the tour to make a political statement and this was something they were not prepared to accept. This group of cricketers have attempted to accommodate the ECB, but to some this was a step too far.
While Morgan held meetings with Peter Chingoka, the President of Zimbabwe Cricket, England's players were in deep discussion themselves. This started as soon as their flight from Namibia touched down in South Africa.Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, were immediately whisked to a table at a cafe by Richard Bevan, their representative from the Professional Cricketers' Association. From a distance the conversation looked deep and animated but it did not take long for them to come to a decision.
Once finished, this triumvirate headed for one of the business lounges at the airport, where they were joined by the remaining members of the squad. These scenes, and the look on the players' faces as they aimlessly walked around duty free waiting to hear news, brought back unwelcome memories of the Cullinan Hotel in Cape Town 21 months ago.
Following the fiasco at the 2003 World Cup - when England refused to travel to Zimbabwe - Morgan stated that the players would never again be put in such a position. But following the refusal of the British Government, the International Cricket Council and the ECB to cancel this tour England's finest cricketers have once again been put in a totally unacceptable situation.
"We feel the Zimbabwe government has made a political statement regarding the media accreditations," Bevan said. "We have a number of concerns about this and we need to communicate with our colleagues in Zimbabwe which we will be doing overnight. Our concerns have been in place for more than 18 months. They are moral, political and contractual but the ECB are now in control of the situation. "
Throughout this débâcle the players have been united and consistent in their views and this is something Morgan would have been aware of. In the World Cup this was not the case and one of the few positive things to come out of this is that the ECB came to a positive decision far sooner than it did last year. Whether the tour goes ahead, and whether cricket in Zimbabwe has any future, is now in the hands of the Zimbabwe government.