England gear up for Zimbabwe tour

Published: Friday, November 26, 2004, 23:53 [IST]
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London:When, some 21 months ago, after the England cricket team had spent several days cooped up in a Cape Town hotel before abandoning their World Cup fixture against Zimbabwe, their administrators were adamant that such a situation would never be allowed to develop again.

But, as they prepared to fly out to Harare on Friday for the delayed start of their forthcoming five-match one-day series from Johannesburg, it seemed only the location of England's South African base had changed.

Things might have been different had not England agreed to a fixture schedule that was part of main World Cup hosts South Africa's attempt to involve 'black Africa' in the 2003 tournament by staging games in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Problems appeared inevitable.

Britain was the former colonial ruler of Zimbabwe, while the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair was a vocal the critic of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's regime.

Pressure grew on England to boycott the fixture in protest at Mugabe's policies, a move the government supported while saying it had no power to impose a travel ban on the team.

Initially the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) insisted it would fulfil the fixture but the situation changed once the team arrived in South Africa in February last year.

It was there that then ECB chief executive Tim Lamb revealed the existence of a death-threat letter targeting England players and their families from an group calling itself the 'Sons and Daughters of Zimbabwe'.

Despite the fact that South African police and security officials said they had never heard of the group, the players, angry at being kept in the dark by their bosses, eventually decided they would not play in Zimbabwe.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) were unimpressed, fining the ECB and docking the team four points, a move that contributed to a first round exit.

In March 2003, ECB chairman David Morgan assured his Zimbabwean counterparts that this month's tour would proceed in return for their team touring in the English season later that year.

But in January this year the British press carried a leaked copy of a draft ECB report which advocated withdrawing from tours on 'moral' grounds.

The leak was a huge tactical error, angering administrators in other countries who saw the report as a crass attempt by England to prepare the ground for going back on Morgan's word.

Soon afterwards, at an executive board meeting in New Zealand in March, the ICC approved the Future Tours Programme.

It said teams could be fined a minimum two million dollars and be banned from international cricket if they pulled out of a scheduled tour. The only 'get-outs' were safety or security grounds or a direct instruction from a national government.

For ECB chiefs, who had repeatedly stressed that international cricket provided some 85-90 percent of their income, it was a terrifying, if unforeseen threat.

The selection race row which affected Zimbabwe cricket this year offered hope of escape but this ended when the ICC suspended Zimbabwe for Tests but not one-day internationals.

Now, although Friday's opening one-dayer has been postponed, the remainder of the five-match series is set to go ahead as scheduled after 13 British cricket reporters, initially refused entry to Zimbabwe, were accredited.

Whether planned or not, the controversy - with the ECB a new if unsurprisingly enthusiastic champion of press freedom - caused disruption, England only turning back from their initial flight to Harare at the airport departure gates.

At a Friday media conference in Johannesburg, ECB director of cricket John Carr warned Mugabe that "any politicisation of the tour can lead to firm and decisive action being taken".

But the series was politicised long ago while the ECB's previous conduct meant this threat was unlikely to impress Mugabe or a cynical cricket world.

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