London: Britain's press on Monday urged England's cricketers to boycott their forthcoming World Cup tie in Zimbabwe, citing the abuse of human rights in the former British colony. "Let the fundamental point be stated with crystal clarity: the England team should not and must not play World Cup cricket in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe," the 'Daily Mail' tabloid said in its editorial. On Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), and not the government, should decide whether England plays in Zimbabwe, while hinting that a boycott was advisable. 'The Daily Telegraph' said the ECB's decision not to boycott Zimbabwe was "regrettable" when Mugabe's government was "a brutal and despotic tyranny". "Mugabe should not be given the chance to legitimise a regime guilty of ethnic cleansing and the starvation of its own people," the broadsheet added. But it stressed the government "would be wrong" to order a boycott. "Were the government to take the decision away from the ECB, this would represent a nationalisation of sport reminiscent of corrupt regimes down the years from Africa to eastern Europe.
"It is right to boycott such regimes; it would be wrong to imitate them," the paper said. The Independent broadsheet said, "anyone committed to democracy and human rights should refuse to confer legitimacy on Robert Mugabe's odious regime". The 'Daily Mirror' tabloid, meanwhile, said the thought of England captain Nasser Hussain shaking Mugabe's hand was "sickening". In a letter sent on Sunday to Iain Duncan Smith, leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party, Blair said, "The government's position is clear, the decision on whether England should play in Zimbabwe rests with the England and Wales Cricket Board -- an independent sporting body." In a separate letter sent to Blair earlier, Duncan Smith challenged the Prime Minister to end the confusion over participation after ministers urged a boycott and England's players and officials called on the government for guidance.
"The ECB can be in no doubt about the government's views," Blair told Duncan Smith, adding, "There are no legal powers available to the government to ban a sporting team from participation. "However, in the light of the deteriorating political and humanitarian situation in the country, ministers have made clear that if the decision were for them, England should not play in Zimbabwe." International Development Secretary Clare Short called on England to pull out of its opening World Cup match in Harare on February 13, saying it would be "shocking and deplorable" to play there. The World Cup begins in South Africa, where the bulk of the matches are taking place, on February 8 with the tournament due to conclude with the final in Johannesburg on March 23.