Vaughan's biggest fear

New threat to the tour no one wanted as reluctant captain prepares to reject the dread hand of Mugabe
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Michael Vaughan's squad would love to be able to concentrate solely on their cricket when they arrive at the Harare Sports Club this morning for today's first one-day international against Zimbabwe. But they won't be able to.

Michael Vaughan's squad would love to be able to concentrate solely on their cricket when they arrive at the Harare Sports Club this morning for today's first one-day international against Zimbabwe. But they won't be able to.

Robert Mugabe's official residence sits directly opposite the entrance to this delightful ground. Armed troops patrol its perimeter, and they are not there to prevent the president of Zimbabwe from leaving his home. The proximity of Mugabe's house means that England will play their two matches in Harare - the second is on Wednesday - fearing that the patron of Zimbabwe Cricket may fancy crossing the road to watch a couple of hours' play.

The England and Wales Cricket Board have told Zimbabwe Cricket that they will not attend any official functions, or meet any members of Mr Mugabe's government, during their 11-day visit. But this does not prevent Mugabe or any of his senior ministers from attending any of the four matches, should they want to.

If they do turn up and a government official attempts to meet Vaughan's team, England's players will be put in a terrible position. There is a much used picture of Michael Atherton introducing his side to Mugabe in 1996, and another of the England football team giving a "Heil Hitler" salute when they played Germany in Berlin before the Second World War. Images like those never go away.

The England captain said yesterday that the ECB have a plan for this eventuality but refused to reveal it. But should anything like this occur, the ECB would have little option but to call the tour off.

"We are fully aware that Robert Mugabe, or one of his senior ministers, may turn up," admitted Vaughan. "But we made it clear before the tour, and it was confirmed by the chairman [of the ECB] this morning, that the team will not be put in a position where they have to shake the hand of any government official. If anything like this did arise then I am sure that the tour would be looked at in a different light. It could possibly lead to the tour being called off but I hope to God that does not happen. We have a plan should that happen but the tour will be constantly assessed throughout the whole week.

Vaughan looked tired as he addressed the media but, after the week he has had, he had every right to be. This was the first time he had spoken since 13 journalists were temporarily banned from Zimbabwe and the tour was almost cancelled last week.

Yesterday it was again the events of the last week, rather than today's game, which dominated proceedings. "I have not enjoyed the last few days at all," he admitted. "I have been dealing with things other than cricket. What I find disappointing is bringing young players on a tour like this, and then they have had to be in meetings where they have had to listen to stuff other than cricket.

"The position we were put in is not one we feel comfortable with because we are professional cricketers, and that is what we do best. The best time of the week for us came on Friday when we got out on the Harare Sports Club and practised what we are good at, and that is playing cricket. It was the first time in the last few days we have concentrated on cricket.

"I knew that there were always going to be difficult days as the captain of England but I am now looking forward to playing four games of cricket with a young team who are trying to push on in the game." As Vaughan spoke, through the window behind him heavy rain could be seen falling.

The 30 year-old has had little time to get out and make any judgement on the everyday life of a Zimbabwean since the squad flew up from Johannesburg on Friday. He admitted to having seen nothing more than the airport, the hotel - where Boney M and George Michael could be heard in the lobby singing about Christmas - the Harare Sports Club cricket ground, and a restaurant.

A quick trip round Harare would have told Vaughan that this was a typically bustling African city. My journey to the cricket ground took me past a BP garage with a 50-yard queue for petrol and a well-stocked fruit and veg stall on the corner of Nelson Mandela Avenue.

It was also interesting to note that even though they attempted to ban the BBC from entering the country last week, BBC World is one of the channels that can be viewed on the television.

When the topic of discussion did eventually come round to the purpose of this tortured trip - the cricket - Vaughan indicated that the Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, who has just left Nottinghamshire for Hampshire, were likely to make their one-day debuts.

Both of these highly rated youngsters featured in England's two warm-up matches in Namibia. Bell scored a pleasant-looking half-century in the second match and in the same game Pietersen showed glimpses of what he is capable of in an unbeaten 31.

The pair, along with Paul Collingwood, Andrew Strauss and Vikram Solanki, give England as athletic a fielding side as they have had for some time. Each is excellent in the 30-yard circle and stealing runs will be a dangerous pastime for the Zimbabwe batsmen.

Collingwood, who is brilliant at backward point, gave tips to the rest of the squad during yesterday's lengthy practice session, and if England can take five fielders of his quality into the 2007 World Cup it will significantly increase their chances of winning the tournament.

Gareth Batty and Matthew Prior will probably have to wait until England travel to Bulawayo for their chance to impress. The final spot will be contested by Simon Jones and Alex Wharf. Wharf is the likeliest to play, but there is a chance that Vaughan may fancy roughing up Zimbabwe's fragile batting line-up with Jones's extra pace.

England (from): *M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), I R Bell (Warwickshire), V S Solanki (Worcestershire), A J Strauss (Middlesex), K P Pietersen (Hampshire), P D Collingwood (Durham), ÝG O Jones (Kent), A F Giles (Warwickshire), A G Wharf (Glamorgan), D Gough (Yorkshire), J M Anderson (Lancashire), S P Jones (Glamorgan), G J Batty (Worcestershire), M J Prior (Sussex).

Zimbabwe (from): *ÝT Taibu, D D Ebrahim, B R M Taylor, S Matsikenyeri, H Masakadza, M A Vermeulen, E Chigumbura, V Sibanda, K D Samunderu, D T Hondo, T Panyangara, M L Nkala, C B Mpofu, E C Rainsford, P Utseya, G M Ewing.

TOUR OF SHAME AND BLAME: THE CASE FOR AND AGAINST

We have to play by the rules of the ICC, and the rules are such that member countries are not allowed to avoid tours for moral reasons, as part of the Future Tours Programme.

David Morgan, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board

Mugabe is using cricket for political ends to broadcast around the world the symbol of normalcy in Zimbabwe. He wants international viewers to say: 'Things in Zimbabwe aren't so bad. Look, they're playing cricket.'

Eddie Cross, a member of the national executive of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe

It will keep the plight of the Zimbabwean people firmly in the news at the time when events in the Middle East have taken centre stage.

Andy Flower, former Zimbabwe player

While it is run by a barbaric regime who sponsor genocide and starvation, we shouldn't be going near the place.

Ian Botham, former England player

The ECB have allowed themselves to be bullied and they in turn have bullied the players psychologically with threats of what will happen to the game in this country if they don't tour.

Graham Thorpe, England batsman

It shames British sport that our national team should be playing in a state that perpetrates such outrages against human rights.

Kate Hoey, former sports minister

We will not issue orders to the ICC and ECB... but my personal view is that it would be better if they did not go.

Mike O'Brien, Foreign Office minister

I certainly won't be giving up my job because of the last four days. So far I've seen a hotel, a restaurant and a cricket ground. I'm looking forward to going to South Africa a week on Monday.

Michael Vaughan

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