London: The thorny issues of player contracts and the security situation in Zimbabwe look increasingly likely to darken the storm clouds of controversy in the run-up to the 2003 World Cup.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) left nobody in any doubt over where it stood when, on Thursday, it first of all issued India what it said was its "final offer" in a bid to resolve the row over player contracts. The ultimatum came just moments after Zimbabwe was given the go-ahead to host World Cup matches after the ICC ignored a boycott call by British politicians. Zimbabwe is scheduled to stage six matches when the tournament gets underway on February 8, although the bulk of fixtures will take place in South Africa, with two also set to be played in Kenya. While both world champions Australia and England have made it clear they have reservations about playing in Zimbabwe, it is the controversial issue over lucrative player contracts, which is concentrating the minds of the Indian team. The ICC even said India could face compensation claims if it did not send its best team to the World Cup, which gets underway on February 8. ICC's president Malcolm Gray said discussions with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had been both "exhaustive and to date fruitless". He added that the ICC was not prepared to make any more concessions as it bids to protect sponsors who have signed up to a $ 550 million seven-year agreement, which also covers the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. Meanwhile his fellow Australian, ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed, said the two sides were now "further apart than before". The row has revolved around restrictions barring players from advertising products which conflict with those of the official tournament sponsors, even if they have existing deals. The ICC had originally wanted to impose a ban of 30 days before and after as well as during the February 8 - March 23 tournament. India has said its players will forego such deals for the length of the tournament. But the ICC said that Indian players wanted to alter this restriction to just the days on which they were involved in televised matches. The ICC said its World Cup Contracts Committee (WCCC) had offered a compromise deal which would reduce the post-tournament ban to just five days except for the finalists who would face a restriction of 20 days or until the first One-day International or Test match, which ever came sooner. Indian players have also been worried about their tournament image rights, only wanting ICC to use them for two months after the event. The ICC is now offering a three-month period as opposed to the original six. India broke World Cup rules by only naming its provisional 30-man squad on Tuesday long after the ICC's November 30 deadline. And the rift between world cricket's governing body and its most financially powerful member did not end there. It deepened on Wednesday when the BCCI's request for a seven-day extension to the December 31 deadline - that all 14 nations have for naming their final 15 man World Cup squads - was rejected. In a statement issued from the ICC's Lord's headquarters, Gray said, "The discussions with the BCCI have been both exhaustive and, to date, fruitless. "In light of the stance taken by the Indian Board, the ICC World Cup Contracts Committee had no option but to advise the BCCI there were no further concessions possible." Meanwhile, the ICC has upheld a report by their inspection team, which supported Zimbabwe as hosts of six games in the World Cup. Speed said, "We believe it will be safe to play these games and that the original schedule of matches can now be confirmed." Seven countries - Australia, England, Holland, India, Namibia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe - are due to play games in Bulawayo and Harare in February and March. But the ICC's announcement is set to cause a political furor. Australia, who cancelled its tour of Zimbabwe earlier this year, and England, both of whose governments have attacked President Robert Mugabe's policies, have expressed their concerns.
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