London: British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday insisted that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) should decide whether England plays a World Cup match in Zimbabwe. "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," Blair said in a letter to Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the Opposition Conservative Party.
In a separate letter sent to Blair earlier, Smith challenged the Prime Minister to end the confusion over participation after leading ministers urged England's cricketers to boycott Zimbabwe, while England's players and officials called on the government for guidance. Ministers, including International Development Secretary Clare Short, have called on England to pull out of the opening World Cup match in Harare on February 13 in protest at Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's alleged abuses of human rights and the forcible eviction of white farmers from their land.
"The ECB can be in no doubt about the government's views," Blair told 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." Blair said the ECB should bear in mind "the likelihood that conditions in Zimbabwe will deteriorate further in the next six weeks".
He added that Foreign Office officials had been in contact with cricketing officials since October and that ministers would be happy to have further discussions with the ECB regarding Zimbabwe. The World Cup begins in South Africa, where the bulk of the matches are taking place, on February 8 and the tournament is due to conclude with the final in Johannesburg on March 23.