Nine words from Nelson Mandela were instrumental in saving the World Twenty20 for England yesterday and averted cataclysm in the international game. As Zimbabwe agreed to withdraw from the tournament rather than lose a vote after tortuous negotiations entered a third day, it emerged that delegates at the International Cricket Council's board meeting had been deeply influenced by the brief intervention of South Africa's former president.
If the decision was a fudge, since Zimbabwe retain their full membership and the £5m or so a year that goes with it, it was also all that England could have hoped for. The conclusion was in the balance until India, the Zimbabweans' staunchest allies, recognised that the game was probably up and brokered the sweetest compromise available. Without Mandela it might not have happened.
At a London dinner marking his 90th birthday last week, he mentioned "the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe" without comment or embellishment. But as Giles Clarke, the satisfied and relieved chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board said, that proved quite enough.
"This statement was quoted during the board meeting by Norman Arendse, the chairman of Cricket South Africa and had a significant impact," said Clarke. "Nelson Mandela is a legendary figure and, as Mr Arendse said, he is a modern day saint. His pronouncements carry weight."
Although it might have affected some positions it still took India until late on to change their minds, recognising that England would simply not countenance Zimbabwe's involvement in next year's T20 event. It is not quite a done deal since the Zimbabwe delegation has to return to its own board for the withdrawal to be ratified. As president Robert Mugabe has ties with the board, rescinding it remains possible.
Haroon Lorgat, the ICC's new chief executive, said: "The president of Zimbabwe cricket himself will be on that team and he was party to the recommendation so I am reasonably confident that everybody will look at the big picture."
There was no question of the decision being viewed as anything to do with the political state of the country. The ICC expect the world to believe that it was to do with the impoverished state of the team (caused, of course, by the political regime).
The official statement said: "The Zimbabwe delegation has agreed to take this decision in the greater interest of world cricket and the ICC. This recommendation should be viewed as one-off." It was noticeable that nobody was publicly critical of Zimbabwe.
Thus, Zimbabwe will remain a full member with full voting rights and will not suffer financially. They can expect to receive the $3m (£1.5m) they would have earned for taking part in the World Twenty20 and will be handed around $70m (£35m) over the next eight years.
South Africa's support for England's position was unbending. It was South Africa who asked the hard questions of Zimbabwe's controversial cricket chairman, Peter Chingoka. Arendse asked if everybody connected with Zimbabwe cricket were members of the ruling Zanu-PF party and how many players who belonged to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change had been injured or killed in recent weeks. There were no answers.
Zimbabwe, with India's backing, used the ICC's constitution to avoid banishment. It turned out that such a motion, applying to a dysfunctional member, should have been put by the end of last December to be debated here.
It took hours of debate to persuade Sharad Pawar, the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, that he should pull the plug on his allies. Eventually he realised it was the only way to break the logjam.
The ICC will establish a sub-committee to advise on the state of Zimbabwean cricket, including its return to full participation in the world game. Since they have not played Test matches for three years because of incompetence and their team has grown weaker that may not be soon.
"The issue of their membership is one that will be associated with the standards of their cricket and getting their administration in order," said Clarke. "We're very satisfied we've put a number of issues on the table. We have reached a conclusion that is undoubtedly right for world cricket and we look forward to staging a tournament that is already 95 per cent sold out." Now Zimbabwe are not attending it may soon be 100 per cent. The ICC can get on with saving Test cricket.