Minister plays down talk of payout over Zimbabwe cricket match

The furore over England's participation in a cricket World Cup game in Zimbabwe deepened yesterday when a Foreign Office minister hinted that the Government would not pay compensation if the team abandoned the fixture.

Mike O'Brien said he did not think taxpayers would be willing to "stump up the money" if England's cricket authorities boycotted the Zimbabwe vs England one-day match in Harare on 13 February.

His remarks came as Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, refused to rule out the prospect of Nasser Hussain, England's captain, shaking hands with President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He made clear he would seek compensation of up to £1m if the cricketers pulled out and were sued for breach of contract.

Mr O'Brien said the cricket authorities should reconsider their invitation to the African state, which has been torn apart by famine and the policies of Mr Mugabe. The minister said he was giving a personal and not "a government view".

He indicated that Britain would support the campaign by John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, to have the matches in Zimbabwe switched to South Africa, which is a co-host of the World Cup.

His call was backed by the Tories, who said there should be "collective action by a number of countries" to bring pressure on the Mugabe regime.

Michael Ancram, shadow Foreign Secretary, who has consistently argued for the England cricketers to withdraw from Zimbabwe, criticised the Government for acting slowly and for refusing to compensate the cricketing authorities if they pulled out.

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