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July 04, 2008

The State of the Union – and what a state it is in.

The issue of cricket in Zimbabwe has long been a political hot potato. At the 2003 World Cup, hosted in South Africa and Zimbabwe, for example, England and New Zealand both refused to play matches in Zimbabwe. Their official reason was the safety of their players and staff but undoubtedly there was a cocktail of concerns surrounding the decision, not least the ever worsening political situation surrounding Robert Mugabe, his regime and its human rights abuses. Two Zimbabwe players, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga both famously and very bravely sported black armbands for their opening match to demonstrate the ‘death of democracy’ in their country.

For this reason there has been regular pressure to be placed on the ICC to restrict Zimbabwe’s participation in international cricket. The precedent, some have said, had been set with South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s when they were suspended from international cricket (and other sport) due to the apartheid policies in place in the country. Of course it does seem unfortunate that a country’s sportsmen should have to suffer because of a political situation out of their hands and this was a voice put forward by the players who participated in rebel tours to South Africa in the ‘80s; that sport and politics should not mix.

A claim not entirely without merit, of course, for reasons which are obvious but it is also necessary to look at the wider picture and weigh up whether the means justify the end. The vast majority of protests affect more than those directly responsible for the problem; a picket will disrupt to some degree the every day lives of passers by or a boycott of a company may affect lower levels of employee. It is in my view that the grave human rights abuses taking place under the Mugabe regime (and they are indeed very grave although I will attempt to keep this article closer to cricket than it is to politics) are so abhorrent that such a move to ostracize the Zimbabwe cricketers from the international arena would not be superfluous. It is peaceful but firm and will make a bold statement to the people of the world and the authorities in Zimbabwe that their actions will not be tolerated.

Furthermore, it is often claimed that sport and politics should not mix and this is an argument given for not taking action against Zimbabwe in the sporting arena. In this case, however, sport and politics are inextricably linked. It is not through the voluntary involvement of the sports governing body through which they have been linked, much on the other side of the fence. Robert Mugabe and his people have involved themselves with Zimbabwe Cricket. Zimbabwe Cricket have involved themselves with the Mugabe regime. It could be argued that this is necessary because of the situation in Zimbabwe: that you cannot guarantee funding or even survival as an organisation in Zimbabwe today and as such it has been necessary for ZC to get into bed with Mugabe in order to stay afloat.

This argument does not wash with me. The sheer existence of Zimbabwe Cricket gives Mugabe a legitimate place on the international stage. A platform through which to spread propaganda. An organisation through which to hide many of his misdeeds. The ICC’s nonchalant acceptance of the Zimbabwe Cricket Board as part of its own organisations higher echelons and its lack of accountability is all but an approval of Mugabe’s actions. I, and I’m sure many human rights campaigners and political activists, would much rather the Zimbabwean board took a stand and prevented themselves from being as cosy with the regime as they are. I would rather the organisation folded and did not give Mugabe a platform than existed as a puppet of a murderous, torturous dictatorship.

Cricket would not suffer from Zimbabwe’s absence. The standard of cricket in Zimbabwe has been steadily falling for years, culminating in embarrassing results such as losing to Ireland in an ODI in 2007 and their suspension from Test cricket since 2005 due to poor performance. It would be a moral decision that the organisation could be proud of that would have no adverse affects on the world cricket arena.

As it panned out at the ICC’s annual conference in Dubai (moved from London because the British government took a stand and put obstacles in the way of Zimbabwe Cricket’s attendance) Zimbabwe were not stripped of their Full Member status of the organisation. Zimbabwe were allowed to get away with ‘withdrawing’ from the Twenty20 tournament next year to be held in England ‘in the interests of the game’ citing that they ‘did not want to gatecrash’. This is a disgrace. It is the right end result for the short term: there is no way that the tournament could have been credible given all the pressure on the ICC to exclude Zimbabwe, had they have taken part. Nonetheless, the result achieved once again gives Peter Chingoka of Zimbabwe Cricket and therefore indirectly Mr. Mugabe, the opportunity to appear to be the ‘good guys’. They can claim to have made their decision in the best interests of the game and makes them appear to have a social conscience.

With even the South African cricket board now breaking ties with Zimbabwe all that would have prevented the removal of Zimbabwe from the full member panel would have been the Asian block, headed by India. Unfortunately the Indian board appears to be led more by furthering their own aims and maintaining their strong, almost controlling, position at the ICC. They could not afford to lose the vote of Zimbabwe who often concedes to India’s wishes in return for the Indian board completely absolving itself of any morality and conscience and permitting the existence of the Zimbabwe board on the world stage.

It is preferable that Zimbabwe do not participate in next year’s Twenty20 tournament. It is regrettable that Zimbabwe has been ‘allowed’ to withdraw rather than being forced out through an ejection from the highest status of member country. As Martin Williamson stated, “anyone who believes that Zimbabwe Cricket withdrew from the World Twenty20 ‘in the interest of the game’ probably believes in Santa Claus.” It is a sad state of affairs when a moral stance cannot be made on such a grave political matter because a group of countries would rather do what is better for their bank balances than what is, simply, better.

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