Government clears way for Zimbabwe tour

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The Independent Online

The realities of international cricket politics appear to have convinced the Government that there is little alternative to England's tour of Zimbabwe in October going ahead. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that, although he did not like the idea of England visiting the strife-torn country, he did not believe the future of the English game should be put in jeopardy by penalties imposed by the International Cricket Council if the tour was cancelled.

In a written reply to Michael Ancram, his Conservative opposite number, Straw acknowledged the "very difficult decision" the England and Wales Cricket Board had to take, particularly in the light of the ICC's meeting in March, which voted to impose financial penalties if the tour was called off without Government advice to do so.

Straw added: "This meeting appears to have given the ECB a choice between a tour which is difficult to defend on moral grounds and financial penalties which might bankrupt the game. I do not like the idea of an England team touring Zimbabwe any more than you do, but I do not believe that the future of English cricket should be put in jeopardy as a result of the failure of others to acknowledge the appalling situation there."

The Foreign Secretary said the Government had no powers to ban a sporting organisation from touring. "There is no evidence that any ministerial statement would be sufficient for the International Cricket Council to allow the ECB to postpone the tour," he wrote. "In those circumstances, I do not believe it would be right that the British taxpayer should have to carry the financial liability which could flow from cancellation of the tour."

He added: "Later this month, the Australian cricket team is due to tour Zimbabwe and you will be aware of the statements made by the Australian Government on this issue. Their opposition to the Mugabe regime - like ours - is beyond question. Yet they also believe that decisions about cricket tours must remain with the relevant cricketing authorities."

David Morgan, the ECB chairman, said he believed England would be kicked out of the ICC if they refused to tour. "Sri Lanka are in Zimbabwe and Australia are planning to go," he said. "Why shouldn't England go? Against that background, the board members and directors of the ECB believe that, provided it is safe and secure, this tour has to go ahead. I do not believe England touring or not touring will make any difference to the situation in Zimbabwe."

Some players have already voiced doubts about touring and it is believed England may send a second-string side as the ECB grudgingly fulfils its obligation.

It also remains to be seen how critics will view this apparent about-turn by the Government, which until now had offered little but condemnation for those suggesting that English cricket should have anything to do with Zimbabwe. By taking this stance, it appears that English cricket has a price, no matter how strongly anyone feels about the morals of giving credibility to Mugabe's evil regime. There must be doubts whether the short-term gain from this decision will have more far-reaching effects in the future.