Vaughan the protector as tourists focus on the game

If the aim of the Zimbabwe government was to confuse England's players, along with the travelling media, before they arrived here a week ago, it succeeded. Following the accreditation fiasco, where 13 members of the media were temporarily banned from entering the country - a decision that almost led to this controversial tour being cancelled - nobody had any idea of what to expect when their flight touched down in Harare.

On the journey from Johannesburg a couple of the England players had a laugh at the expense of myself and another journalist, enquiring whether we looked forward to a few nights in a Harare slammer. We smiled, but... when the plane took off we were not alone. From the anxious look on the faces of Michael Vaughan's 14-man squad, as it dawned on them that they were actually going to Zimbabwe, you could see they were equally concerned about what they were about to experience.

Living inside the protected and insular environment they were promised, England's party of 26 are never going to get a true perspective of what it is like to live here but after seven days in the Zimbabwean capital, and two victories over an inexperienced opposition, they are beginning to relax and treat this tour like any other.

Vaughan's squad have not barricaded themselves in their hotel every evening, ordering room service and watching DVDs. They have visited several of the smarter restaurants on the outskirts of the city - albeit in large groups and in the company of their security guards - had a look at a local game reserve and played some golf.

The nature of Harare, which appears unthreatening, is one of the main reasons for the change of outlook. As was getting back out on a cricket field, and doing what they do best. Never before had travelling to a cricket ground for nets appeared such an exciting prospect.

The role played by Vaughan, England's captain, should not be underestimated either. When England were placed in a similar position to this in the World Cup 21 months ago, Nasser Hussain was in charge. Hussain's passionate and dogmatic approach to captaincy made him the leader he was. But his fiery, and slightly unpredictable nature, would not have helped to relax a group of players who were looking for guidance.

Vaughan's manner during the crisis talks in Johannesburg, and his handling of the difficult situation in Zimbabwe, have been exemplary. He has remained calm, strong and in control. The players know he has been representing their views and this has allowed them to concentrate on their cricket.

Few members of his side would have believed this possible as they left the airport last Friday. Within 20 seconds of leaving the plane England's apprehensive cricketers were left in little doubt as to who was in charge of this country. Before reaching customs the players passed under their first picture of Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe.

Having been whisked through passport control, and after identifying their luggage, they then had to walk under two more portraits of Mugabe. Some of the team would have wondered whether he was ever going to take his eyes off them.

I expected to see a city on its knees during the journey from an immaculate airport to the five-star hotel we were sharing with the England players. But this vision did not materialise. England's cricketers saw vendors selling fruit and vegetables, along with wooden carvings, on the side of the road.

There was a small queue at a BP petrol station - if you wondered where all the Mazdas, Hondas and Toyotas of the Seventies and Eighties end up, it is as taxis here - but people were quietly going about their everyday life.

England's cricketers will have made little or no contact with the local community but had they bothered, they would not have had to scratch too hard to hear their displeasure in what is taking place here. Black and white were equally forthcoming in their views but they seemed worn down by the tight grip Mugabe has over this country.

It did not take long for the local media to try to make political gain out of England's visit. In a press conference, following his half-century in the first one-day international, Ian Bell innocently said that he had been "pleasantly surprised" by what he had seen. Simon Jones, writing in The Independent on Sunday, was also quoted. Jones said: "Nothing is too much trouble for our hosts" and that "there is no sense of danger".

And indeed, physically, there is not. But safety and security has, in the eyes of the England camp, changed following the headline: "England players appreciate Zim."

The threat of physical violence towards the England team appears to have subsided, but the England and Wales Cricket Board, along with the players' representative, Richard Bevan, are equally concerned with protecting the image rights of the players and the image of the game in England. This has led to the players becoming evasive when they are asked questions about their time here.

"Everything has gone pretty smoothly so far," a player quietly told me, before touching a piece of wood. "But Bulawayo could be different. The opposition party [the Movement for Democratic Change] are more noticeable there and there could be two or three demonstrations."

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