Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Call it off NOW

I have written earlier about my increased admiration for Steve Harmison, for he was the only England player to remove himself from selection for the tour to Zimbabwe on moral grounds. Whilst reports came out that Andrew Flintoff would not have gone in any case, had he not been "rested" for the trip, he should have said this earlier and not used it as a retrospective justification for his silence on the issue before selection. And while I may have sympathy for Michael Vaughan, as he is in an invidious position as captain, I think he may regret his decision to captain the team in Zimbabwe in later life.

Of course, the government must shoulder a large amount of responsibility for this situation. It is my firm belief that all too often sport IS politics - why else would Labour be so keen on pushing their London 2012 Olympic bid? The internal politics of the ICC made it impossible for the ECB to make a decision not to tour on their own; the threatened punishments were too great. The only way they could get out of the tour was clear and unequivocal advice from the government; the refusal of the government to give this advice shows how risible their claims to an "ethical foreign policy" really are. That said, on purely cricketing terms the ECB should have sent a significantly weakened party to tour; the contract dispute involving most of the leading Zimbabwean players, whilst now resolved, has weakened their team to a level where competition on an international basis is pretty impossible. Even with star players, I predict England to win all their games on this tour.

However, the tour should not go ahead. All the arguments about politics are highlighted by this afternoon's announcement that Mugabe and his odious regime have banned a large number of English journalists from entry to his country. There is no justification for this whatsoever. What is Mugabe frightened of? The fact that his racist and ruinous policies are damaging the country for all; that his human rights record is nothing short of abysmal; that under any vestige of moral standards Mugabe and his thugs have no right to be in power (indeed, the failure of his African neighbours to refuse to take any action against him brings shame on the entire region). His specific targeting of newspapers that have been most vociferous in their denunciation of his regime speaks for itself.

Mugabe's refusal of press visas shows more than anything why this tour is a political one. He has made several purely political appointments to the cricket authorities in the country; attempts to enforce a racist selection policy are justified by quota. The refusal to open up to any criticism is shameful, and what is more shameful is the number of prominent English cricketers who refuse to take a moral stand against it. If the whole team were to take decided action, any of the ECB threats that other players have intimated would have forced the board into action themselves. I feel sorry for the players; a fine would hit their projects hardest. But I cannot help but feel that non-refusal to tour will do a great deal of damage to the perception of English cricket. We should not acquiesce whilst others are refusing to uphold standards of freedom and decency. Yet another reason has emerged why the tour of Zimbabwe is a disgrace. The bigger disgrace is that our government, our sporting authorities, and our cricketing representatives, are refusing to take a stand against this immoral regime.