Thursday, September 30, 2004

Why Harmison is a true hero

So Steve Harmison is the only England player to have backed out of the forthcoming tour to Zimbabwe on moral grounds. Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff may have been spared a trip in order to give them more rest (and indeed one of the huge benefits behind Harmison's decision not to tour, from an Englishman's point of view, is that he has less chance of breaking down in the following series against South Africa and Australia), and Andrew Strauss may have voiced "moral problems" regarding touring a country in such a troubled time, but Harmison is the only player to have listened to his conscience and decided that touring Zimbabwe was simply immoral.

Of course, there are many other reasons as to why backing out of a tour of Zimbabwe would have been the right thing to do. England refused to play a World Cup match in Harare in early 2003 on security grounds, and by many accounts the security situation has significantly deteriorated. And if that is the case, given the derisory security requirements of the ICC, then pulling out on those grounds would be more than justified. Yes, other teams may have toured Zimbabwe safely in the intervening period, but no other country has precisely the same squabble - many of the farmers being turfed out are British citizens - and Britain is the country on the receiving end of Mugabe's rhetoric against imperialists and colonials. Furthermore, the clamour against the Zimbabwe situation is much stronger in Britain than elsewhere, even if the constant fuss made by the Conservative Party does somewhat outweigh the true merits of the situation (in one particularly memorable interview, Ancram said Blair shouldn't be touring Nigeria while there was a crisis in Zimbabwe but proved incapable of either justifying this or explaining what Blair should do to oust Mugabe). England's players would have been perfectly justified in saying they were fearful regarding security.

Additionally, the standard of the Zimbabwe team is nothing short of appalling, at least as far as international cricket goes. They may have the most interesting first names in world cricket (Prosper and Blessing being especially memorable) but, captain Tatenda Taibu apart, their talent is quite simply not up to international level. Hence the ICC have removed their Test status whilst keeping them as a one-day side, which is fair enough, given that Kenya and Bangladesh hold one-day status. (Although forcing England to play Zimbabwe in light of the shockingly small amount of cricket played against Kenya is equally questionable). England, however, would be well within their rights to send a significantly weakened squad to Zimbabwe - indeed, given that in the absence of action from the government the tour seemed inevitable, my preferred course of action would have been to send an Academy side to make points about the level of cricket that was to be expected. It will not be an instructive exercise for the English team and with the amount of international cricket that is played nowadays it represents an unnecessary burden on our top players.

Accusations of hypocrisy are unfair and unfounded. Of course, it is hard to read the linked article without laughing nowadays, given its claim that "By and large its team is chosen on its merits." The sacking of 15 - white - players over the summer in a dispute over contracts and selection procedures snapped writers like this out of their comfort zone. But still it fails to acknowledge that ultimately Britain was right. The scruples with a particular regime do genuinely extend beyond the sphere of politics. The country is in turmoil, the economy has collapsed, any notions of a free press and judiciary are carefully tossed on the fire by Mr Mugabe's henchmen, and the opposition "Movement for Democratic Change", in the middle of their persecution, have made it clear that England turning up for a cricket tour helps legitimise the regime.

The Labour party have placed the ECB in an invidious position. Sponsors do not want England to tour, but the threatened financial penalties from the ICC, along with the willingness of many subcontinental officials (particularly the odious Jagmohan Dalmiya) to put accusations of racism ahead of the moral authority of the organisation mean that unless there is a clear governmental directive to cancel the tour, it has to go ahead. The grass-roots game could not survive another fine of the sort that was imposed on England following the World Cup fiasco - a punishment almost inevitable in the event of cancellation, although the threaten of suspension from world cricket was never likely as a solution. But the government's refusal to give clear instructions to the team to boycott Zimbabwe was a clear abdication of responsibility. It might fool some of the British people, but Blairite spin was never going to impress the ICC. Only a letter from a member of the cabinet saying, in effect "thou shalt not tour" would have been accepted. If, as this article suggests, Blair was merely trying to mollify people for a bid for the 2012 Olympics, then this abdication is even more disgraceful.

Yet I seriously doubt the Government would act from motives such as that. Instead they cling to their line that "politics should stay out of sport" because otherwise they will be seen as far too interventionist. And, although it didn't prevent intervention in Iraq, wading in on smaller measures such as a sporting boycott of Zimbabwe would undoubtedly lead to all kinds of hand-wringing over other subjects - what if the England football team was to be drawn against Sudan in the World Cup, for example? Their refusal to help the ECB in their otherwise impossible position was, however, wrong. Sport and politics do mix. Of course, the aforementioned Dalmiya should know this, given that Kashmir is the biggest factor in the infrequent meetings between India and Pakistan. Politics and cricket go back a long way - take the campaign for Frank Worrell, a black man, to be made captain of the West Indies, or go back further and look at the diplomatic crisis that the Bodyline tour caused. And it isn't just cricket. The German national team played considerably more friendlies during the inter-war period as the Weimar Republic AND the Nazis sought to convince the world they posed no threat - how could they, if their football team were busy being such perfect ambassadors? Even now, China is using sport as a means of increasing its influence on the world stage (a topic I will undoubtedly return to later).

In Zimbabwe, of course, it is cricket that is the political vehicle for Mugabe. We've all seen the pictures of Mike Atherton, as captain, shaking Mugabe's hand. Mugabe, indeed, is President of the ZCU - showing that Zimbabwean cricket really is free from political influence. The selection panel contains a high proportion of people who have little cricket background and have been placed there by Mugabe so he can apply strict racial quotas to the selected side (indeed, a strong argument against using quotas ahead of merit in any situation). The 15 cricketers were sacked because they disagreed with Mugabe and his tyrranical regime, not because of ability - they would beat the current side hands down. To pretend that you can hate everything that Mugabe's regime stands for and still support tours going to Zimbabwe is nothing short of risible.

Hence Harmison should be applauded in the loudest possible manner for his refusal to travel. Flintoff today said he never intended to travel anyway - in which case, he should have spoken out before the tour party was selected. This truly was a time for cricketers to make a moral stand and to make a political impact. Sure, the lack of top-class competition may harm the development of Zimbabwean cricket. But the continuation of the Zanu-PF Party's government will do irreparable damage to the game. And we never cared about South African cricketers when we launched a boycott of their sporting teams - and rightly so. Getting rid of apartheid was far more important than the personal development of a few great players. Deny it as much as you like, but all too often sport IS politics. Harmison's protest is more admirable than any of his incredible feats on the cricket field.