Threats could force England to cancel trip

As England departed on a three-month tour of southern Africa yesterday, their captain, Michael Vaughan, suggested that his team could yet refuse to fulfil their commitment to the Zimbabwe section of the trip.

As England departed on a three-month tour of southern Africa yesterday, their captain, Michael Vaughan, suggested that his team could yet refuse to fulfil their commitment to the Zimbabwe section of the trip.

Vaughan made this revelation when he was asked how he would react if England received a threatening letter from one of the many groups who oppose their visit. "As of yet I have not received a letter of this sort," admitted a solemn-looking Vaughan at Heathrow. "I have received plenty of letters about the situation in Zimbabwe, lots have sympathised with the position we find ourselves in and have given us support.

"But if a letter arrived this afternoon similar in context to that delivered in the World Cup, I am sure the situation may change. But it hasn't happened and we hope to God it doesn't happen again."

Most, if not all, of the England players selected on this tour have received letters from individuals and groups informing them of conditions in Zimbabwe. But, as of yet, none has threatened either their or their families' safety, should they visit the country and play five one-day internationals.

David Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, admitted that the Board had received much correspondence concerning the tour. "Some of it has been encouraging us to go," he said. "But more than half of it has suggested that it is not correct to go. We have received no threatening letters but should we receive any we will be showing them to the appropriate authorities, along with the captain, the coach and the players."

It was one such letter from a group calling themselves "The Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe" which convinced Nasser Hussain's England not to travel to Harare for a World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe 21 months ago.

In the letter the group threatened to send Hussain's squad back to Britain in wooden coffins and asked the question: "How safe are your families back there in the UK? Even if you survive, there are foreign groups who are prepared to hunt you and your families down."

At the time the organisers of the World Cup were unable to give England assurances on the validity of this group and they chose to forgo the four points which were available, a decision which led to an early exit from the tournament.

Before England arrive in South Africa for a five-Test series starting on 6 December the cricket played will be of secondary importance to events off the field. And in an attempt to avoid any potentially embarrassing situations the ECB has told Vaughan's squad that they will not be attending any state-organised occasions which may involve meeting members of Robert Mugabe's government.

On the field, almost incidentally, England, in the absence of Andrew Flintoff, Stephen Harmison and Marcus Trescothick, will be hoping to find out whether Ian Bell, Simon Jones, Kevin Pietersen and Matthew Prior - four uncapped players - possess the credentials to become stars in this form of the game.

A truer test of their ability will come during England's seven one-dayers against South Africa in January and February, but the next fortnight should give Fletcher and Vaughan a good idea of their character.

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