Henry Blofeld: England may pay price for failing to make a stand over Zimbabwe

The sight of the ECB wringing its hands and not knowing which way to turn has been sickening
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The Independent Online

Of course the England and Wales Cricket Board is in an impossible situation over Zimbabwe. But far from winning any medals for gallantry, it has made its own situation worse at every turn since the imbroglio - more than a year ago in the World Cup - over whether or not the England side should visit Zimbabwe. It would have done well to remember through all of this that faint hearts never won very much.

Of course the England and Wales Cricket Board is in an impossible situation over Zimbabwe. But far from winning any medals for gallantry, it has made its own situation worse at every turn since the imbroglio - more than a year ago in the World Cup - over whether or not the England side should visit Zimbabwe. It would have done well to remember through all of this that faint hearts never won very much.

The Government has refused to let the ECB off the hook by ordering the team not to go. Its approach has been just as pusillanimous as the ECB's and one cannot avoid the hollow feeling that its determination not to forbid the side to go may have been reinforced by the fear of having to pay a substantial amount of compensation. Perish the thought.

It has been up to the ECB to take a lead, therefore, but rather than do that it has ducked and weaved in front of the punches thrown by the International Cricket Council. This august body appears to have resorted to what amounts to industrial blackmail. It is more concerned with embarrassing England than the poisonous Robert Mugabe, whose policies have turned current international cricket in Zimbabwe into a mockery.

If England do not go to Zimbabwe the ICC has threatened substantial fines, and then suspension for a period from international cricket, which would naturally cost considerably larger bucketfuls of money. A figure of £50m has been bandied around, an absurd figure useful only for headlines.

These flexed muscles made those who run the ECB quake at the knees just as the ICC hoped and expected. The dreaded Mugabe, whose principal dislike is England, must be positively salivating at the way in which England's cricket is being made to grovel. There will be no need for him to try and shake hands with the England players if and when they start next winter's series: the damage will have been done the moment the wheels of the aeroplane carrying the team touch down in Harare. Mugabe will by then be howling with laughter.

The sight of the ECB wringing its hands and not knowing which way to turn has been sickening. How much better it would have been - by now it is surely too late - if it had dug in its heels and said that, come hell or high water, it had no intention of sending its cricketers to give comfort to Zimbabwe's appalling regime.

It would have been surprised how much respect this would have won. Strength is a quality that is admired. This business of likely suspension from international cricket would never happen. England provides as much if not more money for the game than any country except India. Would South Africa be happy if they were not allowed to entertain England this coming winter? Would Australia give a skip and a jump if they were told to forget about touring England next year? Not half they wouldn't.

Then there is the matter of the fine for not carrying out apparent international obligations. Seven of the 10 Test-playing countries would have to vote against England for this to happen. If England had dug in their toes throughout the whole affair and taken this strong line, a number of doubting countries would still have been on their side even after the legacy of England's appalling performance over Zimbabwe in last year's World Cup. After all, the situation in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has now openly politicised his country's cricket, has gone from bad to worse and can only be ignored by supreme pacifists or ugly monsters.

It is hardly surprising that the rest of the cricket world is now fed up, not to say outraged, at the way England's administrators have shuffled around this issue, frightened by every shadow they see. It has been as pathetic as it has been humiliating for England's reputation - and not only on the cricket field. The legacy is that it will be a long time before this issue has been forgiven and forgotten. England's cricket has never needed strong leadership more than it does now.

That the ICC has been as unsympathetic as it has to England's cause is unsurprising. The chairman, Ehsan Mani, is the most level-headed of men and it is his job to try and look after the game while taking accounts of the interests of all the countries involved. It is no secret that the manager of Indian cricket, Jagmohan Dalmiya, the Panjandrum of Calcutta, has never wasted an opportunity to embarrass England. It requires little imagination to see him doing his best to tie Mani's hands behind his back over all this. Giving England a bloody nose seems more important than taking a moral stand about Mugabe.

As far as the rudderless ECB is concerned, it has reaped no more than it has sown. It is now almost impossible to see how the matter can be resolved other than to England's profound and embarrassing long-term disadvantage.

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