MacGill withdraws from Australian squad for Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

The gravity of the crisis confronting international cricket over Zimbabwe increased yesterday as a Test player refused to tour the country. Stuart MacGill, the Australia leg spinner, asked the selectors not to pick him for the squad that is due to travel next month.

The gravity of the crisis confronting international cricket over Zimbabwe increased yesterday as a Test player refused to tour the country. Stuart MacGill, the Australia leg spinner, asked the selectors not to pick him for the squad that is due to travel next month.

"I told them I was uncomfortable about touring Zimbabwe and maintaining a clear conscience," he said.

MacGill thus becomes the first foreign player to express public opposition to playing in Zimbabwe. It may persuade others to follow and suggests that England are not necessarily alone in their doubts about touring the country.

The potential for further turmoil before the summer is out was hinted at by the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, a Zimbabwean who is a former captain of the national team. With the England and Wales Cricket Board still to declare its official hand over the tour in November, Fletcher was reluctant to discuss the issue and said only that "at this stage" he was willing to leave it to the ECB.

He seemed to be saying he would go if told, but that he was waiting to see: "If the ECB say we've got to go we've got to go. My attitude is to leave it in their hands and make a decision when we get closer to the tour. I'm not going to discuss Zimbabwe at this stage." During the turbulence over the World Cup fixture between England and Zimbabwe in Harare last year, Fletcher, who is effectively the manager of England as well as the coach, refused to break his silence.

England's position - and their World Cup campaign - then ended in chaos and failure. "It's still an early predicament," Fletcher said yesterday. The ECB intend to announce their decision next month after another meeting with the Government but their present stance is to make the tour.

MacGill would probably have made the Australian squad as back up for Shane Warne. In his statement, issued after his name was absent from the 15-man party, he was careful not to criticise the government of President Robert Mugabe or refer to the present dispute involving 15 white Zimbabwean cricketers with their ruling body.

"I have given this a lot of thought and personally do not believe the situation in Zimbabwe is such that I can tour at this stage," he said. "I don't have ambitions as an activist or political spokesman...this is a personal matter based on my own feelings." Cricket Australia reacted by saying that they understood MacGill's objections and would neither force him to go nor banish him from future selections.

James Sutherland, the CA chief executive said: "He's uncomfortable with the regime in that country and with issues around the sufferance of the Zimbabwean people." Sutherland said other players had privately expressed reservations about going but had agreed the tour should proceed.

"Cricket Australia, the player group and the Australian Cricketers' Association have agreed that, on balance, playing Zimbabwean cricketers in Zimbabwe, is appropriate for the continued development of cricket as a global sport."

The unity of the International Cricket Council probably hinges on it as well. All countries have agreed to adhere to the Future Tours Programme, or face fines and a suspension. That is why England's stance has changed. Earlier this year they were ready to boycott the tour, but if they were to lose at least £10 million through being suspended it would be disastrous for the professional game.

The ICC were as unmoved by MacGill's decision as they apparently are by the dispute between some of Zimbabwe's leading players and the Zimbabwean Cricket Union. The players, backing their sacked captain Heath Streak, are refusing to play because of what they see as a racially prejudiced selection panel. The ZCU have given them 21 days to "rectify breaches of contract".

Alexander Downer, Australia's foreign minister, said that if Zimbabwe was picking teams on the basis of race the ICC should focus on it. There will probably need to be lot more MacGills before that happens.

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