Zimbabwe tour: the ICC's crucial threat

Spectre of international suspension and financial ruin forces Lord's to fall in line and abandon their 'moral' approach
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The Independent Online

For David Morgan, the size of the impending catastrophe for English cricket loomed abruptly. "It was a shaft of light," he said. In that spellbinding moment Morgan realised that if England refused to tour Zimbabwe against the wishes of the entire remainder of the International Cricket Council, the game in this country could be ruined financially in months.

It probably confirmed for Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, what had already been made pretty clear to him by his fellow mandarins from the other countries within the ICC. For months, the ECB had intentionally created the impression that they would refuse to meet their agreement to make the trip in October. They wereaware that the country at large objects because of the oppressive government of Robert Mugabe. In a piece of peerless but failed grandstanding, a paper was launched called Reviewing Overseas Cricket Tours: A Framework For Rational Decision Making, in which the concept of a moral approach was proposed. The deal seemed to be done.

But throughout the briefings and leaks the ICC - and, more crucially, their member countries who agree action - have remained consistent. They will countenance no moral reasons for refusal to tour (anywhere, not just Zimbabwe) on the grounds that this is the job of governments, not sporting bodies. It became increasingly obvious that England faced being outcasts.

"Listening to a debate at the First Class Forum it dawned on me suddenly," said Morgan. "You don't need to be suspended for years. Some people make the mistake of believing that we wouldn't be suspended simply because we're such an attractive touring outfit. We bring people with us, witness Barbados, but they don't need to suspend us for very long to cripple us."

That it is an astonishing turnaround is not lost on Morgan, who has been involved in talks on the issue for almost a year - since England pulled out of their scheduled World Cup match in Harare a year ago. "British public opinion, business opinion, the views of the Government and the opposition parties are clearly against us going," he said last week in Barbados. "And although the Government have not given us an instruction not to go, they have made it absolutely clear to us that they disapprove.

"Having said that, the consequences of us not fulfilling the commitment would be immense. I am certain that the ECB must not take a political or moral stance; it is for government to do that."

It seemed to be the height of perversity that as England changed tack, the game in Zimbabwe was tearing itself apart. Players are threatening to quit because of what they perceive to be political interference in selection. Heath Streak, their captain, has been effectively railroaded out of office. The ICC could only stand and stare.

The potential cataclysm facing English cricket was brought home to Morgan at the ICC executive board meeting in Auckland last month. There, the ICC's Future Tours Programme was enshrined for the first time in regulations, rather than each tour simply being an agreement between two countries. Morgan was left in no doubt by the other delegates that they felt England should make the tour.

"Despite having a lot of support and encouragement, there was a clear message from the nine other full members, the three representatives of the associate countries and the president and chief executive that we should tour Zimbabwe unless [our] government tells [us] not to go or it's unsafe, which would be acceptable non-compliance."

It left the ECB in an invidious position: they would be pariahs either abroad or at home. Abroad, they could garner no support for refusing to tour. The closure of ranks by other cricketing nations could be measured by the wide disparagement of that Overseas Tours document, written by Des Wilson, chairman of the ECB's corporate affairs and marketing advisory committee. It was long on sincere emotion, short on hard facts, and despite initial ECB enthusiasm any chance of it becoming policy was swiftly dropped.

Yet at home the ECB have been applauded for their apparent position hitherto. From the left and the right, forces were joined in unison. England might stand alone but stood for right. Touring Zimbabwe would give indirect succour to the Mugabe government.

It seemed not to matter to this assembly that England had played Zimbabwe at home in 2003 and had undertaken to reciprocate. Those in favour of calling off the tour, while businesses continued to trade there and the Government operated what they called "targeted restrictive measures", did not take account of what might happen to English professional cricket. "Suspension just for five months when Australia are coming, what an effect that would have," Morgan said. "I have little doubt if without acceptable non-compliance we decided not to go, the members of the ICC would find it necessary to ensure that we paid an appropriate penalty. There is a difference between regulation and agreement."

Anybody supposing that opinion on Mugabe's heinous regime is universal should realise that last week the Barbados government received a Zimbabwean envoy with a view to reinforcing trade links, and that the country's Nation newspaper carried an opinion-page piece condemning colonialists and eulogising the Mugabe government.

The ECB are determined to keep the players with them. Regular discussions are being held with the Professional Cricketers' Association chief executive, Richard Bevan. The ECB's management board meet next week and will receive a Zimbabwean Cricket Union delegation, headed by the president, Peter Chingoka. Morgan said it would involve consultation in the fullest sense. (But even here the issue is clouded: Chingoka, for instance, has ICC support but Andy Flower, the former Zimbabwe batsman who quit the country, has condemned him for political interference). It is unlikely the ECB will decide immediately. They plan to meet the Government again in early May, and may then await Australia's tour of Zimbabwe.

Morgan and the ECB can only put their case, hoping they will be properly heard and not shouted down. "People have the right to be concerned," Morgan said. "At some stage a few months ago we seemed to be heading down the path of taking a moral position, but at no stage did the management board take a decision not to go." Morgan knows that the arguments and repercussions will run until the tour is due to take place in October.