Players' union toe ICC line on Zimbabwe

Cricketers are being advised to continue making tours of Zimbabwe by the worldwide players' union. Those who seek guidance will be told that moral and political issues are best left to governments and that a boycott would be catastrophic for the game and, therefore, their livelihoods.

Cricketers are being advised to continue making tours of Zimbabwe by the worldwide players' union. Those who seek guidance will be told that moral and political issues are best left to governments and that a boycott would be catastrophic for the game and, therefore, their livelihoods.

The Federation of International Cricket Associations, who represent players' groups from most major cricket countries, backed the studiously amoral line taken by the International Cricket Council. Tim May, Fica's chief executive, warned against simplifying the issue. "The stance of not going will be one with an enormous cost," he said. "Cricket would fall over and not going for moral reasons may easily have a wider application elsewhere."

But May has contacted the ICC, and Fica are seeking discussions on the moral and political dimensions of touring. The players are desperately trying to claim an official voice in deciding what happens. "Wearing my Fica hat tight down on my head, we do support cricketing links," said May. "But loosening it, I also recognise wider moral and political considerations. I don't really know a ready answer. It can actually aid the country by going there."

The issue was made still more complicated last week by the dispute between the Zimbabwe Cricket Union and 15 of their leading players, all white. Accusations of racial bias in favour of black players were freely made. The ICC, who have kept to a strict line of advocating tours, have held urgent talks with the ZCU "to protect the integrity of the sport". They know that international cricket will be a laughing stock if credence is given to matches involving a Zimbabwean third team.

So far, individually or collectively, the world's players have been virtually silent. The biggest exception is Stuart MacGill, who made himself unavailable for Australia's tour of Zimbabwe to maintain a clear conscience.

Several other Australians have made mainly anodyne, anonymous comments about their concerns for the people of Zimbabwe, but all declared their intention to tour. May, who is also head of the Australian Players' Association, said he had held numerous talks with players but knew of none who considered withdrawing. He agreed that banning journalists from Zim- babwe was contentious but he could deal only with players.

"Going to Zimbabwe is not necessarily bad," said May. "That's too simplistic and a lot of good can be done for Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans by playing cricket against them. When Australia went to the World Cup there, there was a joy on peoples' faces. It can be uplifting and in no way can it be seen as condoning whatever the political make-up."

Fica have become deeply embroiled in the stand-off between the ZCU and its players. May said Fica had constantly relayed their concerns to the ICC about playing standards and what that was doing to the value of international cricket in a broad sense. The problem for May is that the ZCU refuse to recognise Fica's appointed delegate, Paul Strang, so it has been difficult to represent the players properly. But they have worked feverishly to bring the parties together. Efforts to find a mediator failed since the ZCU want to appoint their own.

Yesterday none of the 15 rebels turned up for practice prior to the third one-day international against Sri Lanka in Harare today, the veteran all-rounder Grant Flower describing the ZCU's latest approaches as "ridiculous and not worth consideration".

May is aware the player dispute could damage the international game every bit as much as the moral and political row. "It's a big mess but it can be tidied up. The players want the right to be heard constructively; we want to ensure that happens. Our job is to represent the players on player issues." Fica, like the ICC, are anxious to protect the bottom line. They also have to represent Zimbabwe's players.

The ultimate sanction was hinted at by Ehsan Mani, the ICC president. Rejecting the claims of racial bias, Mani said it was clear there were still difficult issues. "Through the agreed process of discussions, the ICC will be able to monitor and protect the interests of the game while at the same time respecting the sovereignty of the ZCU in dealing with the specifics of the dispute."

That was not quite a veiled threat but it was the first sign that the ICC will drop Zimbabwe if necessary. They are part of cricket's family but they are ninth out of 10 and slipping fast.

It gives England breathing space. The England and Wales Cricket Board meet the Government in May but will adopt a wait-and-see policy rather than becoming involved in months of proclamations before the autumn tour. The squad, from the Zimbabwean coach, Duncan Fletcher, down, avoid all moral argument.

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