Harmison boycott starts soul-searching in England team

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The Independent Online

England's players have been given a week to decide whether they wish to tour Zimbabwe in November, or boycott the controversial trip.

England's players have been given a week to decide whether they wish to tour Zimbabwe in November, or follow Stephen Harmison's example and boycott the controversial trip. Harmison's moral-based decision to make himself unavailable for England's 12-day visit has brought the issue to a head, and the England and Wales Cricket Board wants to know if any other players wish to withdraw before the selectors sit down and pick their 14-man party at the end of the Champions' Trophy.

"I am sure all the players will think long and hard but we need to know by the weekend if they are available," said David Morgan, the chairman of the ECB. "This is so England's selectors can pick the squad accordingly. I was not aware of Stephen Harmison's decision until Saturday night but I thought there might be some players considering their position following Stuart MacGill's refusal to go there with Australia earlier this year.

"All along I have made it absolutely clear that any player, who for reasons of personal conscience did not wish to go to Zimbabwe, would not be penalised, and that remains the case."

Harmison's decision has put Michael Vaughan and his players under an enormous amount of pressure to follow his lead, and there is a strong possibility that at least one further member of the side will choose to stay at home.

Andrew Flintoff was one of the players adamant that England should not travel to Harare for their World Cup match against Zimbabwe in February 2003. Like Harmison, the Lancashire all-rounder finds it hard to accept that it is right to play cricket in a country which oppresses its people and is run by a tyrannical leader.

Little appears to have changed in Zimbabwe in the 18 months since and this is sure to have influenced Flintoff, who is believed to have been talking regularly about the matter in the England dressing room. And it is this, along with the close relationship he has with Harmison - his best mate in the England side - which indicates that it can only be a matter of time before he makes an announcement.

"No other player has come to me and said that they have no intention of travelling," Richard Bevan, the head of the Professional Cricketers' Association, said yesterday. "I think the majority of the players will be going and will be supporting the ECB."

Bevan is the person England's players turn to when they are in need of advice. He played a major rule in guiding Nasser Hussain's side in South Africa 18 months ago and is set to be in for another busy week.

The ECB has let England's players down by putting them in such a position once again and Harmison's decision should be applauded. The trauma of dealing with this issue at the 2003 World Cup drove Hussain away from the England captaincy and the ECB must hope that it does not have the same effect on Michael Vaughan.

To date the England captain has toed the party line but it will be interesting to see what happens if there is a mass exodus of players before the weekend. Vaughan was hoping that all of his side would make themselves available for the tour, because under his leadership England have become a tight, disciplined and well led unit. Their togetherness has been a major reason for their success. But the loss of two of the team's most influential players - both Flintoff and Harmison starred in England's 49-run victory over Sri Lanka at the Rose Bowl on Saturday - could have a negative effect on the morale of the side.

"My decision was made in Cape Town 18 months ago," Harmison said, "when England's World Cup squad spent an horrendous four days before finally deciding not to go. Nothing has changed for me. The situation there is worse now -- that's what the official reports say - and Zimbabwe's top players have been sacked.

"But it's still not been an easy decision and what's made it hard is what Vaughan and England have achieved this year. Michael would like us to stay together but our captain also appreciates this is about personal conscience." The schedule for England's visit - Vaughan's squad are due to arrive in Harare three days before their first one-day international - shows that the ECB would prefer it if the tour did not go ahead. But the refusal of the Government to ban England from travelling, and the desire of the ECB to be seen as an accommodating member of the ICC has prevented them from cancelling the trip.

"The ECB's standing in the international cricket community has been at a low level for quite some time," admitted Morgan. "For us to renege on our agreement to play five one-dayers in Zimbabwe would be regarded as a poor show."