ECB undoes moral progress by delaying decision on tour of Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

The England and Wales Cricket Board left itself open to ridicule last night when it postponed making a decision on whether England should tour Zimbabwe in November. Despite receiving the strongest suggestion yet that the Government is opposed to the tour, the ECB decided not to stick to next Thursday's self-imposed deadline and has given itself another month to consider the matter.

While it is understandable that the board wants to give all the legal, financial and political issues at stake the attention they deserve, because the potential ramifications are likely to be costly, the ECB's decision once again smacks of indecision.

This is a shame because the board had earlier been brave enough to commission Des Wilson to produce a paper from which it could gauge the suitability of countries for future tours. The document, Reviewing Overseas Cricket Tours: A Framework For Rational Decision Making, was the first produced in Britain which seemed prepared to acknowledge that sport needed to have a moral conscience.

That cricket had become the first sport which appeared ready to accept that safety and security could no longer be the only justifiable reason for withdrawing from an overseas sporting event, gained the ECB plenty of admiration. However, by delaying their decision they have undone a lot of this good work.

The ECB must have had some idea of how Wilson's paper would have been greeted by the cricket community. It must have realised that the prospect of England withdrawing from the tour would not have gone down well with the game's governing body, the International Cricket Council, which reiterated its stance that a country should meet its touring obligations unless it was ordered by its government not to.

The easy option would be to carry on as before and pretend that sport exists in a vacuum. Not only is this naïve but in the long term it can only have a detrimental effect on the image of cricket. Having taken the tough decision to address this issue, cricket, and the ECB, should now follow through and do what they believe is right, no matter what the ICC and its lawyers think.

By stalling, there is a real danger that the fiasco which surrounded England's World Cup qualifying match in Harare 11 months ago could be mirrored. And a repeat of this would have a far more damaging effect on the game in England than withdrawing from a tour which the vast majority of the country do not want them to go on.

This delay also suggests that the ECB may, having been threatened with legal action from the ICC and isolation from the international cricketing fraternity, be having second thoughts about using Wilson's document. The framework it set out was expected to be accepted as an official guideline by the ECB Management Board on 29 January - the same day as the intended announcement on the tour - but this, too, now appears in doubt.

If the paper is used, it is impossible to imagine the tour going ahead. In his letter to the ECB Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said the situation in Zimbabwe was "bleak and deteriorating". He stressed that conditions there were worse today than during the cricket World Cup last year and that the World Food Programme had estimated "approximately six million people (half the country's population) are dependent on emergency food aid".

Straw also drew attention to Zimbabwe's appalling human rights record and the fact that the country had been suspended from the Commonwealth and was about to be expelled from the International Monetary Fund. Although he stated that the final decision was one for the ECB to make he concluded by asking the board whether a high-profile tour to the country at this time would be consistent with the approach shown by others.

In a press release explaining the delay Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the ECB, said: "The decision the Management Board will have to take is a very difficult one and involves balancing a whole range of factors. We must do this decision justice and the Management Board feels it needs a little more time to make a thoroughly informed decision. Obviously, the Government's explicit view on the tour will be carefully considered and we are pleased to have it."

The ECB's Management Board will now adopt a three-stage decision-making process. On 29 January it will have a debate on Wilson's paper. This will give it a month to analyse further the legal, financial and cricketing implications of a possible postponement, as well as assemble any other relevant information such as a further clarification of the government's position. A final decision will then be made at a special meeting before the end of February.