W Indies join boycott threat to World Cup

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The Independent Online

TONY COZIER in Barbados, TIM McGIRK in Delhi and HUGH BATESON in London

The World Cup is in chaos less than a week before it is due to start, with the West Indies joining Australia in saying they will not play in Sri Lanka after last week's car bomb which killed 79 people and injured up to 1,200.

The West Indies have asked for their game against Sri Lanka in Colombo on 25 February to be rescheduled, the request coming just hours after the Australians, who are refusing to play there on 17 February, had a similar demand rejected.

Although the official statement from the West Indies Board of Control did not stipulate what the reaction would be if the request was refused, its president, Peter Short, later confirmed the team would not go to Colombo, even if it meant forfeiting the match. "We've acted on reliable intelligence information received through diplomatic channels and other reliable sources as well as cricket connections," he said.

Short said there had been no pressure from the players, who are at a one-week preparation camp in Barbados prior to leaving for the World Cup on Wednesday. "They were concerned but told us they expected us to do the right thing by them," he said. "I think we've done that. We felt it would be unfair to subject them to the kind of mental pressure they would be under in the environment in Sri Lanka as we understand it at present."

The West Indian announcement came during the night on the sub-continent, but Australia's decision drew a bristling response from tournament organisers and in Sri Lanka, whose Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kardirgamar, said: "If any campaign is mounted by the Australian government to persuade other countries not to come, that would be considered a hostile act." He also summoned the Australian High Commissioner.

The organising committee, Pilcom, said it would not reschedule games. "The World Cup matches will be played as scheduled," Pilcom's secretary, Jagmohan Dalmiya, said. "Assurances were received from the Board of Control for cricket in Sri Lanka that the Sri Lankan government will leave no stone unturned to ensure the strictest security and safety of the officials of all teams in Sri Lanka.

"I hope sport and its spirit will prevail above all considerations and we will request the Australian board to reconsider and play matches as scheduled."

The president of Sri Lanka's cricket board, Ana Punchihewa, echoed the feeling. "We are naturally disappointed, but I hope the door is not closed since there are another 12 days left to persuade the Australian board to change its mind," he said.

While negotiations between Pilcom and the Australians and the West Indies continue, the other two countries due to play in Sri Lanka - Zimbabwe and Kenya - were also keeping a close eye on events. The Kenyan team, who play in Kandy on 6 March, said they were content to wait and see how things developed. "We are in no hurry to make a decision," Jasmer Singh, their tour manager, said. "We feel that the assurances given for the security of the teams should not be taken lightly."

Zimbabwe still expect to play in Colombo on 21 February. The Zimbabwe Union's chief executive, Don Arnott, said: "Our decision remains unchanged. We are going to play in Sri Lanka but we will continue to monitor the security situation. We are confident that the situation is under control and we also have confidence in the organisers of the World Cup tournament that they will make the right kind of decision whenever the situation demands."

Leicestershire, who were due to make a pre-season tour of Sri Lanka, withdrew yesterday, and are making plans to tour South Africa instead.

The effect on the competition could be huge. A decision to allow countries simply to forfeit games would make a mockery of the qualification stages, which would be seriously compounded if Zimbabwe and Kenya join the boycott. On the other hand, disqualification, which the Australian captain, Mark Taylor, acknowledged yesterday as a "possibility", would rob the tournament of two of its largest draws and consequently much credibility.

Tamil rebels have bombed and killed many people in Colombo during their 12-year civil war, but have never targeted foreigners. Privately many Sri Lankans feel the cricketers are over-reacting. One official asked: "What's the fuss," "There have been bomb blasts in some of the other World Cup venues - Karachi, Bombay and New Delhi - and no one is complaining."

Pakistan could be another hot spot for visiting teams, with the Pakistani and Indian armies fighting over disputed areas in Kashmir. Some of the World Cup cities, like Karachi, Peshawar and Lahore (where England are staying peacefully at the moment) have suffered recently from ethnic and sectarian violence.

Ray Illingworth, the England team manager, said: "You have to feel sympathy for Australia. It would have been a difficult situation for us if we had been going to Colombo."

Measures to protect England include armed soldiers in their hotel in Lahore and a heavy military presence around the park ground where Mike Atherton and his team spent six hours practising yesterday.