England face becoming outcasts in the international game if they fail to convince other countries of the virtue of their intention to withdraw from the autumn tour of Zimbabwe. At stake are future series against several, perhaps all, other nations and the Champions' Trophy, which is scheduled to be staged in England this September.
By postponing their official decision until the end of February, the England and Wales Cricket Board have given themselves four weeks to win the argument. The likelihood is that they will lose it, and that other countries may ultimately decide to boycott games against England.
The ECB's chairman, David Morgan, could well find himself vilified by his fellow members on the International Cricket Council's management board. It has been an open secret for several months that England were seriously contemplating refusing to meet their undertaking to make the trip to Zimbabwe. Withdrawal has always been a likely option since they pulled out of their World Cup fixture in Harare last February. Although that was putatively for security reasons, the pressures inflicted by politicians, media and ultimately the players themselves proved irresistible.
Before Zimbabwe fulfilled their obligation to come to England last summer, Morgan told the Zimbabwean Cricket Union that England would reciprocate, and that only safety fears would provoke a refusal to go. But last week, the rumours were given substance by the release of a report by Des Wilson, the chairman of the ECB's corporate affairs and marketing advisory committee.
His dossier, entitled Reviewing Overseas Cricket Tours: A Framework for Rational Decision-making, embraces the notion of withdrawing from a tour on moral grounds. While it is closely argued, it is short on facts. On the moral issue, Wilson concludes: "In the final analysis, cricket has to ask itself this question: can we or can we not tour a country knowing what we do about its stance on human rights and the suffering of its people?"
These are impressive words embracing a large concept. But they may also mean that while giving due attention to the starvation and torture of millions of Zimbabweans under Robert Mugabe's pernicious regime, England would also have to give some weight in future to, say, Australia's treatment of Aborigines.
The ECB's management board will decide on Thursday whether to adopt Wilson's report. If they do, he will submit a report specifically concerned with Zimbabwe. England will win plaudits among many observers if they embrace a moral code, because sport has been seen for too long be standing aside. But some will ask, as usual, whether sport should do the politicians' job.
However, the ECB are inviting trouble, because as members of the ICC they subscribe to the tours programme. Along with other members, they agreed that tours would be stopped for only safety and security reasons or, as has been the case for three years with India visiting Pakistan, where governments specifically proscribe trips.
Morgan has been well aware of the dangers. "We will have difficulties if we don't meet a commitment that is part of the future tours programme," he said. "That action will not be well received by the other international cricketing boards. There is no doubt that we will consult our cricketers in a proper fashion using the best human resources techniques before we ask them to go anywhere." Richard Bevan, chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, said that the PCA had been involved in talks for months.
If the ICC seem inflexible, they are only carrying out the wishes of their members. One ICC official said last week: "As it stands, there would be eight of the 10 full members opposed to England's stance if they did not make the tour, and perhaps one undecided."
The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has painted a bleak picture of the situation in Zimbabwe in a letter to the ECB. While the ECB must bear in mind that diplomatic relations have not been broken off with Zimbabwe, Straw records that there is a programme of targeted restrictive measures against leading members of the Zimbabwean regime. "You may wish to consider whether a high-profile England cricket tour at this time is consistent with that approach," he ends.
Sympathy for England's plight between a rock and a hard place is diminished by their handling of the World Cup fiasco. They lost the faith of their players, and the ICC and the other countries lost patience with them. Nobody was sorry to see them go. That lack of esteem was probably further compounded when the Wilson report was revealed in the press. The ICC and Zimbabwe knew nothing of it.
When the decision is made it will only be the beginning. Pull out of the tour and they will be accused of disrupting their sport, decide to go and there will be eight months in which opponents can persuade them to change their minds. Between their rock and hard place, England will have to be firm.