The prospect of the England team boycotting their first World Cup game against Zimbabwe moved a step closer last night in Cape Town when the England and Wales Cricket Board failed in its attempt to have their controversial first-round match moved from Harare on 13 February.
The decision to reject England's request was made by the six-man Event Technical Committee, which took over the responsibility for such matters from the International Cricket Council on Sunday. It will come as a blow to the ECB and the England team, who asked for the match to be moved to South Africa because of fears over security and safety in Zimbabwe.
Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the ICC and the chairman of the Technical Committee, announced the news England would have been expecting but did not want to hear. "In all the circumstances the unanimous view is that the request by the ECB must be declined," Speed said at the conclusion of a four-hour hearing.
Speed appeared critical of the case put forward by the ECB, claiming the 150-page written submission depended largely on outdated information. He went on to say: "The claim was put together at short notice. Some parts relied on hearsay and radio reports and we took this into account. These games have been scheduled for a long time.
"We have always said we will take the safety and security of players into account. We respect the ECB's responsibility to its players but the unanimous view was that the request was declined. The committee does not agree with the ECB. We have done the best we can and made a fair and honest decision."
After hearing the news that their request had been turned down the ECB lodged an appeal, which means that Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the ECB, along with the board's legal counsel, will re-present their reasons for this match being moved to an Appeals Commissioner in Cape Town today.
Hearing England's appeal will be Justice Albie Sachs, from South Africa. His decision will be final and binding and if, as is likely, it goes against England, it is difficult to see this fixture taking place because both the ECB and Hussain's World Cup squad will find themselves in horrendous positions. Having asked for the match to be moved, because they do not feel it is safe to play in Zimbabwe, it is hard to imagine the ECB now demanding the players travel to Harare following the opening ceremony of the World Cup on Sunday.
If the board was to take this stance Hussain's squad would have every right to question its motives – which would be financial, because withdrawing from the match is likely to lead to a large compensation claim arriving at Lord's from the ICC. Such a claim for failing to fulfil its contractual obligations could run into millions of pounds and have a devastating effect on the game in England. However, player safety is paramount and the board cannot now believe it is safe to send their players to Zimbabwe.
The England World Cup squad would be put on the spot should that unlikely event occur. It would appear unbelievably shallow of them, after stating they had moral as well as safety fears of travelling to Harare, if they were to change their mind for the four World Cup points on offer, especially after Hussain had questioned their value in the whole shake of things in December 2002.
They would also have on their conscience the fact that they would in some way feel responsible should any trouble flare up while they were in Harare and that the possible ramifications of their decision could lead to colleagues in county cricket being made redundant at the end of this summer.
While they were in Australia, the England players had notes pushed under the doors of their hotel rooms from people threatening to disrupt the match if England played in Harare, and not surprisingly they made no comment on the ICC decision. An England team spokesman said: "The players feel it would not be appropriate for them to comment at this stage of the process."
Before the hearing, the Zimbabwe Cricket Union appeared in no mood for compromise following a statement from its chairman, Peter Chingoka. "Certainly, we will not be playing any of our six group matches outside the country," he was quoted as saying: "We will only go to South Africa for the Super Six stage [the second round of matches] and if there is any other directive then we will use every channel until justice prevails."
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