We're batting on a very sticky political wicket

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The Independent Online

It seems a bit convenient, that just as the England cricket authorities are unhappy about the team going to Zimbabwe, they discover a death threat. This could catch on. Instead of ringing in sick with a false croaky voice, if you fancy a day off, you could ring up and say: "Hello Brian, er, I'm afraid I can't come in this morning, I've discovered a leaflet from the Apocalyptic Warriors of the Knights of South Norwood. Apparently they're going to burn down my street if I go anywhere near Elephant and Castle. I should be back tomorrow. Bye."

It seems a bit convenient, that just as the England cricket authorities are unhappy about the team going to Zimbabwe, they discover a death threat. This could catch on. Instead of ringing in sick with a false croaky voice, if you fancy a day off, you could ring up and say: "Hello Brian, er, I'm afraid I can't come in this morning, I've discovered a leaflet from the Apocalyptic Warriors of the Knights of South Norwood. Apparently they're going to burn down my street if I go anywhere near Elephant and Castle. I should be back tomorrow. Bye."

Has anyone looked closely at the death threat to the England team? Because there must be a chance the cricket board has learned from the British Government, and it was pasted together from previous death threats. Maybe there are clues, such as a passage that goes: "We will seek vengeance on any cricketer who ignores our pleas for democracy, and if I can't marry you Sigourney Weaver, be certain the match will not go ahead."

They must be able to claim that the Bin Laden tape proves that he's linked to the group that issued the threat.

What is certain is that the cricket board has appeared to want to find such a treat for some time. Two weeks ago they told the press that death threats had been received, until it emerged that the "threats" were leaflets from the official opposition in Zimbabwe that laid out their case for reform. This must make for an anxious life, if you genuinely assume every leaflet is a death threat. Every time a member of the England and Wales Cricket Board comes out of a major railway station they must scream "duck". Then later they'll tell everyone: "My whole life flashed before me, until I got off the floor and a bored teenager told me the leaflet said 'Sign on today at Kenny's Gym you get your first month free'. But you can't be too careful."

I received a death threat once myself. It was after an article disapproving of Cliff Richard, and I was promised not only death but an eternity of damnation. I've never played "Mistletoe and Wine" since.

My guess is that the England team were split over whether to go to Zimbabwe anyway, because they were unsure about being seen to endorse a brutal regime. But the cricket board didn't want to be landed with the costs involved, so the death threat has become a reason for pulling out of the match. That's not to say the players aren't frightened by it, but it's become much more of an issue than it would have been were it not for the political confusion. Which would explain how they fronted a series of press conferences at which they said: "Thank you for coming. We still haven't made up our minds. Do you fancy coming back, shall we say, ooh, half past three?"

But this was refreshingly honest. This is the style that politicians should adopt. Gordon Brown's popularity would soar if he got up on the morning of the Budget and said: "I'm buggered if I know what to do. Well, there's so many sums."

Perhaps the route through the difficulties is to remember the reasons why they're able to ponder this decision at a Cricket World Cup held in South Africa in the first place. The sporting boycott of the apartheid state clearly hurt the regime and was one more weapon against it. When Thatcher and much of the establishment opposed the sanctions, they would always say: "There are lots of bad regimes, we can't boycott them all."

To which one answer was that every major black or democratic organisation within the country is calling for a boycott. In Zimbabwe a similar situation applies. Mugabe's victims are not just white farmers. He only began to occupy their farms in response to a vast movement growing against him anyway, in particular against massive privatisation. And the Movement for Democratic Change and the rest of the opposition have pleaded with England not to play.

If the English cricket authorities had said from the beginning that they weren't prepared to endorse the Mugabe regime, or that they were only prepared to go if they could speak out against it, they would have been cheered around the world, as were the Zimbabwe players who took a stand by wearing black armbands. But now they're in the mess of having to prove the gravity of this death threat. Somehow they've managed to get in an argument with the Zimbabwean government and come out looking like the unprincipled ones.

Still, it might all have proved useful because apparently the England team has been trained to deal with deranged assassins, and maybe these techniques could even-up the next Ashes series. They should be allowed to squirt pepper spray in the bowlers' eyes. Or our bowler could walk down the wicket to Adam Gilchrist and say: "Don't be a fool man, drop the bat."

Despite all this, when India versus Holland is on TV at eight in the morning and Crystal Palace beat Liverpool, sport reminds us of the wonderful world we live in, only slightly tarnished by the fact it's currently in hock to a series of madmen intent on incinerating the whole place.

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