Everything up in the air: Cricket's age of uncertainty

This week's ICC meeting was always going to be controversial after the explosion of Twenty20, but even that has been overshadowed by the issue of Zimbabwe. Now there is a real danger of a catastrophic split in the sport. Stephen Brenkley reports from Dubai

In the next few days, big-time cricket will run the gamut of emotions from A to Z. By compromise or consensus it should somehow plough a way through the maelstrom of most of that alphabet, but then there is Zimbabwe.

There has always been Zimbabwe. It has haunted the game and the good people in it these past five years, but this time it is different. This time it could split the game asunder, or perhaps just as bad, leave it as a laughing stock.

At the annual gathering of the International Cricket Council in one of Dubai's grand hotels this week, the country that has never been very good at cricket but has commanded a place at its high table for a quarter of a century will dominate proceedings. There are other matters of gravity to attend to for a game apparently awash with cash yet paradoxically also in a state of crisis. But they will all be informed and affected by what the ICC's board decide to do about Zimbabwe – if anything.

Zimbabwe, the parlous state of Test cricket everywhere else but England, the vexed problem of players appearing in breakaway leagues, the concern about the takeover of Twenty20, are all to play for this week. The ICC is here to save the game, no less.

There is some wriggle room but not much and it may come down to who blinks first between England and India, and who the rest of the big 10 countries decide to support. At worst, there could be a schism in the world game.

A week ago, it had seemed straightforward. After a sudden rush of meetings and statements in a period of barely 48 hours the ICC was destined to act decisively. Years of prevarication about Zimbabwe were to end. Ahead of the contentious run-off in the stricken country's presidential election, it appeared as though cricket had had enough. Zimbabwe would be cast out, thus saving blushes and acrimony. Cricket South Africa, a long-running supporter of its neighbour, astonishingly cut bilateral cricketing ties. The day after, the British government made it clear that Zimbabwe were not welcome in England next year for their scheduled tour, or more controversially, for the World Twenty20 tournament due to be held immediately afterwards.

The England and Wales Cricket Board, in a rare fit of moral outrage, called off the tour. Meanwhile, the outgoing president of the ICC, Ray Mali, crucially a South African, called for Zimbabwe to be put on the agenda of the ICC's board meeting today. The wind was blowing one way and it was against Zimbabwe.

England, hidebound by its colonial past, floundering around, trying, and failing, to be everybody's friend and ending up looking vacuous, at last had allies. Or so it seemed. By the weekend, India had declared that they would continue to support Zimbabwe's presence as one of 10 full members of the ICC, unless their government decreed otherwise. If this was unequivocal, it could also be interpreted as a plea for the government to issue an instruction which has so far been unforthcoming.

India would unquestionably take the rest of the Asian bloc countries with them in any vote. To England's dismay, Australia have been less than vociferous in expressing their keenness for Zimbabwe's membership to be suspended. West Indies, too, do not seem to be of a mind for boycotts.

There has been a great deal of posturing in the past few days and there is a still time for some more. The talks behind closed doors have been aimed at cutting a deal and cricket now seems less and less likely to force confrontation. Everybody professes to be sickened by events in Zimbabwe but equally there is a mood among some cricketing countries that the cricketers should not pay.

Zimbabwean cricket officials have responded in aggressive fashion. Much is being made of the fact that Zimbabwe will be competing unhindered in the Olympic Games without the hint of any ban and are also playing their qualifying matches in football's World Cup. Opponents of that argument, including Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, have reached the point that cricket's position is different, not least because of the close links between Zimbabwe Cricket and President Robert Mugabe, once their patron. And this ultimately is all about Mugabe.

The controversial chairman of Zimbabwe Cricket, Peter Chingoka, has suggested that the ICC is breaking its own constitution by discussing Zimbabwe since insufficient notice was given. But the discussion will proceed and there is some talk about whether Zimbabwe should even be present when their status is debated.

England yesterday were showing no sign whatever of backing down. They are determined that Zimbabwe will not come to England next year for the World Twenty20 – although they know that if the vote goes against them the event would be moved elsewhere. For the first time, and not before time, England looked prepared to call the ICC's bluff. Last night, the ECB suggested that the loss of the event might cost $20m [£10.05m]. But they put pressure on the ICC by also insisting that $5m worth of tickets have already been sold, making it difficult to move anywhere.

Aware of the need to tread delicately, the ECB has become aware of its importance in the cricketing world. India might indeed be the commercial powerhouse, but next in line by some distance come England. And England have travelling fans wherever they go.

Giles Clarke and David Collier, respectively the ECB's chairman and chief executive, will have been buoyed by the British government's determination to harden its position. From New Zealand, too, came harsh words about links with the regime.

The moral stance which has for so long eluded the ECB is now being attained. Clarke himself may be a figure who provokes debate but he should not be underestimated. The ECB was hoping for support from Sri Lanka who will replace Zimbabwe as tourists to England next year and perhaps even Pakistan who are desperate to ensure the ICC Champions Trophy is played there later this year.

England will resist at all costs the worst bargain of all. That is that Zimbabwe suspend themselves from playing one-day cricket – which is all they have played for three years and badly at that – but retain their full ICC membership and all that goes with it. Mostly that is millions of dollars a year from the ICC's central funds, usually divided up after tournaments.

Zimbabwe Cricket's finances were the subject of an independent audit by the ICC late last year. There were suspicions that the money was not being used properly. The ICC then looked extremely flaccid when it refused to make public the auditors' findings.

The then-chief executive of the ICC, Malcolm Speed, was annoyed at this but he was outflanked by Mali, the organisation's temporary president. So outflanked that Speed was effectively sacked two months before he was due to retire. He was not the first administrator to become a victim of Zimbabwe. Tim Lamb, once chief executive of the ECB, was diminished and brought down by the constant drain of what to do about the southern African country.

The official talks will be today but at a dinner last night in Dubai Sports City attended by all the ICC dignitaries there was only one topic of conversation. Mali's part in all this is perhaps the most fascinating aspect. He was parachuted into the presidency last year when the incumbent, Percy Sonn, died. Mali had for a long time been a friend of Zimbabwe and refused to countenance any action against them. Suddenly, last week he changed his mind and nobody was more stunned than David Morgan, the former ECB chairman, who will take over the ICC presidency this week.

At the time, everything had changed. No more. It was not to be that straightforward. Cricket can never have been more reliant on the attitudes of governments in non-cricketing nations. The game feels that if there is sufficient upsurge of feeling then their members will be more easily persuaded to take decisive action.

Zimbabwe will overshadow every other item on the agenda this week. But even without it, the gathering was the most significant in the history of the ICC, set up in 1909 as the Imperial Cricket Conference by England, Australia and South Africa.

The modern ICC has to do something about the promotion of Test cricket, otherwise the five-day game could wither and die. It is aware of this, but heads are also being turned by the cash cow that is Twenty20, the new whizz-bang, smash-hit form of the game. England, secure in the strength of Test cricket at home, are in the vanguard.

There is a certain irony in the fact that this convention should have been in London. It is always in London, traditional home of the ICC. But it was moved when the UK government refused a visa to Chingoka. It was never expected that Zimbabwe would be banned in Dubai. It may not happen still. If not the mess could be permanent.

The sporting spectrum: How Zimbabwe are dealt with in other arenas

FOOTBALL

The national side lost 2-0 and drew 0-0 with Kenya last month, leaving them in third position in their four-team qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup, behind Guinea and Kenya and ahead of Namibia. Unlikely to qualify, they complete their programme with matches against Guinea and Namibia in the autumn.

CRICKET

The women's team failed to qualify for their World Cup, finishing fifth of eight in the qualification tournament in South Africa in February.

RUGBY UNION

The national side are involved in the World Cup qualification programme, although the tie against Senegal this month will be staged in Zambia after Harare was deemed unsuitable due to the situation there.

OLYMPIC GAMES

The country's Olympic Committee intend to send a full team to compete in Beijing next month, including the swimmer Kirsty Coventry, who won gold in the 200m backstroke at the 2004 Games in Athens. Among other notable competitors will be Antipas Kwari in the men's mountain biking and the tennis player Cara Black, world No 1 in the women's doubles with South Africa's Liezel Huber.

HOCKEY

Both the men's and women's Under-21 sides are due to play World Cup qualifiers in Egypt and South Africa in September.

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