England face new threat over tour

'Pull out of Zimbabwe and you could lose September showpiece' is the message to Lord's
Click to follow

The repercussions of England's probable refusal to tour Zimbabwe are beginning to emerge. In a low-key but ominous warning, Jagmohan Dalmiya, the president of the Indian cricket board, indicated that the Champions' Trophy, the so-called mini World Cup, would be under threat.

"The Champions' Trophy will be played in England in 2004 [from 8 to 25 September] and India are going there for three one-day matches before to acclimatise," he said. "If the tour to Zimbabwe has been cancelled that is something we would have to consider. We would need to talk about it in the International Cricket Council."

Dalmiya, who is also the driving force of the Asian Cricket Council, refused to sympathise with the England and Wales Cricket Board or the dilemma in which they find themselves through being put under pressure from the Government and the media. He said they had agreed to tour Zimbabwe under the future tours programme.

"I look forward to hearing what England have to say at the Executive Board meeting of the ICC in March," he said. "We all have to keep an open mind. The Champions' Trophy is an important competition." Dalmiya said that if anything extreme happened, a proposition to hold it elsewhere could be examined.

The Trophy, a biennial event involving all the major nations, is the ICC's second most important one-day competition. Those considering themselves as purists scoff at it as being superfluous, but apart from being a short festival involving all the world's leading players in one country, it also forms part of the organisation's lucrative $550m (£300m) television deal, which lasts until the 2007 World Cup. Anything that jeopardises it would threaten massive financial penalties.

So far, there is a conciliatory mood, as was embodied by Dalmiya's refusal to issue outright threats. Other countries insist they are willing to listen. The new presidents of the Pakistan and South Africa boards both said they were not rushing to judgement.

For Pakistan,however, Shah-aryar Khan said he would stick to his country's traditional line, that politics and sport must be kept separate. He expected England to tour. Ray Mali of South Africa said that England should tour as long as it was safe but did not rule out the possibility of his country agreeing to stage the Zimbabwe-England matches.

England agreed last week to postpone their decision on the Zimbabwean tour, scheduled for October and November, until after the ICC's executive board meeting in Auckland on 9 and 10 March. This followed a request from the ICC president, Ehsan Mani.

Although the probability is that England will withdraw, the postponement of the decision buys them time on two grounds. First, they have the chance to convince the ICC that the situation in Zimbabwe has altered, and that England are a special case.

Secondly, the Australian board will send a three-man delegation to Zimbabwe in March to assess whether it is safe enough for them to tour in May. James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, said last week: "We will only travel if it is safe to travel." It would be convenient for England if Australia - who, like others, refuse to countenance a moral dimension - found it unsafe and that they had found it so before England make their decision.

There is no doubt the ICC will take some convincing of England's case, not least because Zimbabwe toured here last year. Administrators and commentators worldwide pointed out last week that if you embraced a moral dimen-sion it was objectionable not only to tour a country but to play them anywhere.

David Morgan, the chairman of the ECB, said he was not worried about the reception he might receive from his fellow board heads. It was he who travelled to Zimbabwe last March to seek assurances that they would tour England, and promised them that England would withdraw from the reciprocal tour only on safety and security grounds. "That was our position then, but since March last year our information is that there has been a deterioration in the situation," he said. "The letter to the ECB from the Foreign Secretary was as close as you are ever likely to get in a western democracy to an instruction not to go. We know business is against us going. But I would emphasise that we have not made a decision. We must give the international community the opportunity to put their side of the story."

The ECB have not yet adopted the paper written by Des Wilson, the chairman of the Corporate Affairs and Marketing Advisory Committee, Reviewing Overseas Cricket Tours: A Framework For Rational Decision Making. This embraces the concept of declining to tour on moral grounds and, as Morgan said, has been well received in the UK, not so well elsewhere.

Morgan and the ECB's chief executive, Tim Lamb, will spend the next five weeks trying to persuade their counterparts in other countries both of the merits of Wilson's document and England's status as a special case, and pointingout that the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe are against the tour. Morgan insisted that relations with the ICC top brass are cordial.

"I'm not going to be hypothetical about what might or might not happen after we have made a decision," he said. But when he speaks to Dalmiya he will probably be told that plenty will.