The Test series that starts tomorrow may be unique in the history of English cricket: it is more interesting as a political event than as a sporting one.
To the sports fan, it is England's least appetising home series since before Alec Stewart was born. Zimbabwe are a poor team now further weakened by the premature retirement of their sole world-class player, Andy Flower. They have won only four Tests this century and have never beaten any Test side from outside the Indian subcontinent.
England are a middling team, better at batting than bowling, whose attack is depleted by injury: with Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Andy Flintoff all ruled out, the only first-choice seamer available is Jimmy Anderson, who is uncapped. If this were a football match, it would be Charlton v West Brom. Except that West Brom don't have Robert Mugabe as their patron.
Whether the tour should be happening at all is arguable. A hundred British MPs tabled a motion yesterday to say that it shouldn't. Most of Mugabe's opponents would agree with them. But clearly the series will go ahead so the crucial thing is whether there are protests. As the African National Congress used to say before it tasted power, there can be no normal sport in an abnormal society.
Zimbabwe under Mugabe is a viciously abnormal society, ravaged by famine, Aids and corruption, but above all by a government that meets dissent with violence and torture. Having long since established a one-party state, Mugabe now runs an outlaw government, as was vividly shown last Friday, when the last foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe was bundled on a plane in defiance of a court order upholding his right to stay.
If sport is to carry on against this backdrop, it must not be normal sport. Sometimes a game is justified only as a vehicle for protest. The two teams tomorrow will be less important than the two teams demonstrating outside, one representing England, the other Zimbabwe: Peter Tatchell's small squad of expert human-rights stunt-pullers, rumoured to be dressing up in cricket whites drenched in blood, and a less practiced, but more personally involved gathering of expatriate Zimbabweans who have suffered at Mugabe's hands. They will be arriving on buses laid on by SWRadioAfrica.com, Zimbabwe's only free broadcaster, and will be handing out black armbands to spectators. It will take a mean spirit, or an unhealthy amount of English reserve, to turn them down. During the World Cup, the England squad showed some scruples and at least thought about pulling out on moral grounds, but ended up doing so on the much less edifying grounds of security.
Nasser Hussain, who is practically a moral philosopher by dressing-room standards, recognised that they muffed it. The best response to the situation, in fact the best moment of the whole blighted World Cup, came when Henry Olonga and Andy Flower wore their black armbands. It was simple, elegant and beautifully judged: one black man, one white, two strips of tape, two fingers up to despotism.
Flower and Olonga have left the field now, but their courage continues to echo around the morally empty corridors of international cricket. The administrators will do nothing: Malcolm Speed, chief executive of International Cricket Council, will insist that ICC does not make political judgements, thereby making himself look foolish as well as feeble. And Tim Lamb of the England and Wales Cricket Board will argue that cricket should not be expected to take a stand on Zimbabwe when 300 "other British companies" still do business there - blithely ignoring the fact that a national team represents a nation in ways that an importer of courgettes does not.
Once again, it will be left to the players to show that cricket's historic association with fair play is not a myth. For as long as the Zimbabwean people are oppressed by their own government, two members of the team should wear armbands. It doesn't matter who they are: the more they switch them around, the trickier it will be for the management to punish them.
Two England players should wear black armbands too. Ideally, they will be two regulars from different racial backgrounds, to make it harder for Mugabe to come out with his usual retort that it's all a white colonialist conspiracy. When Zimbabwean cricket fans who dared to have opinions were led away by the police from Australia's World Cup match in Bulawayo, it was striking how they went hand in hand, black skin on white. If Hussain feels unable to wear an armband himself, perhaps Mark Butcher will, as a senior player with a mind of his own. If the ECB's enforcers try to use central contracts as a gag, two of the fringe players can step up. Anthony McGrath, this could be your moment.
If the players do nothing at all, they will feel ashamed - maybe not tomorrow, but one day and for the rest of their lives.
Tim de Lisle is the editor of 'Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2003'Reuse content