James Lawton: A betrayal of cricket and humanity

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The Independent Online

We knew that David Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, was not exactly Dr Livingstone, and that when he was greeted at Harare airport by some stooge of Robert Mugabe there might be a certain shortfall in plain speaking.

We knew that David Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, was not exactly Dr Livingstone, and that when he was greeted at Harare airport by some stooge of Robert Mugabe there might be a certain shortfall in plain speaking.

However, no one could have been prepared for the toe-curling pusillanimity of this sports politician for whom a great door to decent behaviour had been opened - but who had neither the wit nor the conscience to walk through.

Eventually, he emerged with a handful of visas for cricket writers, a victory so derisory that the broad hint that he was rather pleased with himself was nothing less than breathtaking.

Indeed, if it is true that we still search in vain for a hero in this farrago of spinelessness - while saluting belatedly the principle of the BBC foot soldier Pat Murphy, who at the time of the World Cup last year said that he would rather walk on broken glass than report cricket in what Mugabe and his henchman had made of Zimbabwe - it is necessary to grade various levels of operational and moral failure.

Morgan and a government which includes in its ranks Peter Hain, the man who made his name as an anti-apartheid campaigner, who once urged that we should place barbed wire around Lord's or Twickenham rather than allow in cricket and rugby players representing the pariah state South Africa, surely contended hard for top place on the midden.

Hain made a serious run for it when he heaped all the blame on the feeble ECB. Here was the former young lion of human rights side-footing responsibility away from a government which disapproved of the cricket tour but refused to lift a finger against it, as it does in the case of all kinds of business support, from British Airways down, for Mugabe. But in the end Morgan brushed aside all opposition.

Even when Zimbabwe barred entry to the cricket writers - and plainly offered a huge loophole for Morgan and his colleagues to say, finally, that they were not to be blackmailed by the International Cricket Council into doing something that was deeply offensive to most of the nation - Morgan was quite indefatigable.

He would find a way to make the tour happen, he told us, as though he was offering a gift rather than a betrayal.

Yesterday he went into Harare Cathedral for, it might have been assumed, some moments of reflection about what he was doing, why he was re-treading the ground that so infuriated the former England captain Nasser Hussain and his players when they were holed up in a Cape Town hotel during the World Cup. However, this was no stop on the road to Damascus.

Morgan emerged preening himself on the approval for his actions he won in his own vox pop in the cloisters. Underwhelmingly, it consisted of two men, one black, one white, who according to Morgan were both delighted that the English cricketers had arrived, albeit rather in the fashion of a flock of weary sheep.

That would have been bad enough in its utter detachment from the reality of a once beautiful, and productive land, being systematically ushered back into the stone age, but Morgan was filled with conviction now. Here is what he said: "I have certainly looked at what is happening here. We have sympathy with the people here but the ECB is in business - our trade is cricket and the revenue part of our trade is international cricket. In order to trade internationally, we have to play by the rules of the ICC and the rules of the ICC are such that member countries are not allowed to avoid tours for moral reasons as part of the future tours programme." Translation: Your hearts can bleed as long as they like, but I'm here to represent cricket not as a great game, one that the Caribbean Marxist philosopher CRL James rated as the most profound gift of the British empire to his beleaguered countrymen in Trinidad, but a piece of merchandise, something to sell at any cost to human dignity.

Morgan may have felt he flew to Africa as a man of some stature. One day, though, he might just have to acknowledge that he got off the plane not as a statesman of cricket but a grubby little shopkeeper holding up cricket as nothing more than a bag of humbugs.

Meanwhile, we can only be ever more depressed by an affair that in the end has become rather more than just another episode in the losing battle to separate sport from politics. This is so even if you accept the broad argument that engaging in sport only with countries of impeccable regimes and stainless human rights records might just leave you with a World Cup final between two thinly populated dots in the South Pacific.

On these grounds, who would have taken a World Cup to Argentina in the time of the generals or voted for the Beijing Olympics in four years' time? However, what is specially jarring about the Zimbabwe business is the high visibility of the suffering in that country, the contempt the Mugabe regime has for criticism of the horror it is producing and the dogged refusal of the ECB and the ICC to accept that in certain circumstances playing sport is not only an irrelevance to all that is happening around it but also an obscene statement of disregard.

In this Morgan's epistle from the shadow of Harare Cathedral was particularly numbing. Earlier in the week, as even the outrageously immoral ICC began to accept that trying to enforce financial penalties on anyone rejecting the conditions imposed by a regime plainly beyond reason or conscience would have invited not only defiance but outright scorn, Hussain was dragged back to what he described as the worst days of his sporting life.

He said: "Put to one side the overwhelming moral argument against playing cricket in Zimbabwe - and who can be unaware of the atrocities being committed by the Mugabe regime? Last time we players had moral objections but we were told we had to keep them to ourselves. Our only grounds for complaint, which could get the match cancelled without English cricket incurring huge financial penalties, were security issues - or so we were told. So we complied, pretended we were prepared to go because of security advice, and were branded shallow and insular sportsmen for worrying about ourselves.

"Nothing could have been further from the truth - we had genuine concerns about the morality of playing but we were under enormous pressure. Tim Lamb, then chief executive of the ECB, tearfully begged me to take the team. Chairman David Morgan promised me the trip was off, only to come back 12 hours later pleading for me to go. I told him where to go - he had been full of inconsistencies."

Hussein, of course, begs certain questions, as did his successor Michael Vaughan when he said that he felt the team were taking something of a stance this time when they insisted on delaying their arrival until immediately before the first one-day match. What is the point of concern without action? When does a man say he will do what is right simply for its own sake? These, no doubt, are questions easier to answer when your entire livelihood might depend on the strength of your convictions, but an awareness of such practicality is unlikely to lift the appalling sense of the abandonment of an entire, suffering nation when England walk on to the field at the Harare Sports Club tomorrow.

To get there you go down a broad avenue running by the presidential palace of Mugabe. I went there once to interview Graeme Hick before he took his place in the England team. China tinkled on the pavilion terrace at the tea interval. At Hick's old school you were told how young black players were coming through and on the drive down to the great young batsman's farming community the fields were full of grain and tobacco. At the Sports Club, cricket, like the still-fertile land, was changing, but it too seemed to have sturdy roots.

But that was before the crops were burned and the people driven into terrible hunger and pain. You could sit at the Sports Club, sip your tea and see cricket as a seamless part of a decent life. Now, we have seen this week, it is a miserable, unprotected pawn in a much bigger, grimmer game.

We do not know precisely the greeting Morgan received when his feet touched the soil of Africa this week, but it is hard not to presume that it contained at least some element of contempt.