Message clear as England fly into Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

England finally arrived in Harare yesterday and, until they had travelled to within 200 yards of their five-star hotel, must have wondered what all the fuss was about. Following the arrival of flight SA022 from Johannesburg, Michael Vaughan's 14-man squad were whisked through customs at a spotless airport and on to the team bus.

England finally arrived in Harare yesterday and, until they had travelled to within 200 yards of their five-star hotel, must have wondered what all the fuss was about. Following the arrival of flight SA022 from Johannesburg, Michael Vaughan's 14-man squad were whisked through customs at a spotless airport and on to the team bus.

On their journey towards the centre of this bustling African city, the team passed a golf course, vendors selling wooden carvings by the roadside and several of the fast-food outlets they would see in England. Not one protester was to be seen.

But then, on a white wall, emblazoned in large red writing, were the words "England Go Back" and "Shame on England". Such remarks are unlikely to make the England and Wales Cricket Board reconsider their position, but it highlighted to the team that not everybody in this country is pleased to see them here.

Once their luggage had been delivered to their hotel rooms Vaughan's side slipped down to the Harare Sports Club for a light training session. This would have been heaven for the squad. After spending two days in airport lounges and hotel business centres deliberating the fate of this controversial tour, the players must have found it refreshing to concentrate on something else.

At the ground they were also given little idea of the troubles here. The Harare Sports Club is one of the quaintest Test grounds in the world. Its outfield looked immaculate and there were several locals sitting outside the Keg and Maiden bar, having a relaxing Friday afternoon drink. Security was low and the players had a pleasant work-out.

There was a look of trepidation about England as they boarded their 10.50 flight in Johannesburg. A few light-hearted comments, concerning which cell we would be spending the night in, were aimed at the media, but they looked a pretty solemn lot.

Ironically, a mix-up gave them one final chance to pull out. As the plane was being pushed towards the runway it suddenly stopped and returned to its bay. It had left half a dozen passengers on the tarmac and had to return to pick them up.

This delayed the flight by 30 minutes and at 12.05 the England team passed over the Tuli Block ­ the point where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet ­ and into Zimbabwe air space.

It would have been thought that the disagreements between the ECB and anything Zimbabwean would have ended once Robert Mugabe's government had allowed the 13 banned journalists to enter the country. But a disagreement over the number of limited-over games England should play while they are here has caused further friction between the ECB and Zimbabwe Cricket.

The original schedule for this tour incorporated five one-day internationals, but the first of these, due to be played in Harare yesterday, was cancelled because of this week's accreditation fiasco. Zimbabwe Cricket requested that the ECB allowed them to rearrange the schedule so that five matches still took place. But this was something David Morgan, the chairman of the ECB, and the "Zimbabwe Cricket were very keen that the teams should play on Saturday and Sunday," Morgan said. "But we rejected this request out of hand on the basis that it was unrealistic to expect England to play a one-day international before they had been here for 24 hours.

"They were still keen, even with a Sunday start, to play five one-day games in eight days but I think that four in eight days is in itself a fairly hectic schedule."

Yet there has been a slight tinkering with the schedule. England's first two matches ­ tomorrow and Wednesday ­ will be played in Harare. Both teams will then fly to Bulawayo, where the third and fourth games will be played next weekend.

"Zimbabwe Cricket have indicated to us that they will suffer a significant financial penalty as a result of there being one fewer match," Morgan added. "But we have made it clear that the England and Wales Cricket Board is not liable. It is a direct consequence of the delay in the accreditation of the 13 members of the British media."

This reaction did not go down particularly well with Peter Chingoka, the chairman of Zimbabwe Cricket. "We are very disappointed," he said. "We have indicated to Mr Morgan the areas in which we shall lose money and I will continue to discuss the matter with my colleagues."

Chingoka refused to be drawn on whether he would take the matter further, but this is money that cricket in Zimbabwe can ill afford to lose.

Morgan also explained why England did not call the tour off on the evening that accreditations had been denied.

He said: "The international cricket community agreed that it was unrealistic to expect England to play in Zimbabwe if key cricketing journalists, stakeholders in the game, were not permitted to report. But this support was conditional on us making our very best efforts to obtain the accreditations we wanted. We were pleasantly surprised the decision was reversed but, had it not, the tour would have been called off."

Morgan reflected on the criticism he has taken in recent weeks and said: "I'm not immune [from criticism] but I've had a fairly tough upbringing in business and industry and I'm just concerned I do the right thing," he said.

"I cannot over-emphasise the importance of gaining closure on this affair, and that will come once we've played the cricket."

The size of the crowds and the coverage the matches get will be of little concern to Vaughan's side. All they are interested in is playing the four matches and getting back to South Africa.

England's team for their first match against a young and inexperienced Zimbabwe side are likely to contain two new caps. After playing in the two warm-up matches in Namibia, Ian Bell looks certain to make his debut tomorrow. The highly rated right-hander will open the batting with Vikram Solanki.

This is not a familiar position for Bell in one-day cricket. He has opened the batting for Warwickshire in first-class cricket, but has scored most of his one-day runs batting in the middle order.

These places are occupied by Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood, so Bell's best chance of staying in the side ­ Marcus Trescothick will return in South Africa ­ is to score more runs than Solanki.

Kevin Pietersen should also gain his first cap. The talented right-hander had little chance to shine during his two innings against Namibia, scoring 5 and 31 not out.

No England player will be more determined to make an impression here than Pietersen. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity, the 24-year-old turned his back on South African cricket four years ago. Scoring runs during the next week will, in the new year, give him the chance to show his former countrymen what they have lost.

All 14 members of the squad are likely to play in at least one match, but Simon Jones, Matthew Prior and Gareth Batty will probably have to wait until they get to Bulawayo.