Britain said on Tuesday it would support a ban on a tour next year by the Zimbabwe cricket team in protest at President Robert Mugabe’s rule, but the decision was up to the sport’s authorities.
The BBC’s Inside Sport television programme said the government was looking at several options to stop next year’s Zimbabwe cricket tour, including banning all Zimbabwean sports men and women from competing in Britain.
Zimbabwe reacted angrily, saying such a ban would be ”racist”.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesperson denied Brown was considering a blanket ban.
”We continue to discuss Zimbabwe with the England [and Wales] Cricket Board. This is a matter for them. If they decide they want to ban Zimbabwe, that’s a decision we would support,” the spokesperson said.
Cricket’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), opposes sanctions on the Zimbabwe cricket team. Some news reports say a ban on Zimbabwe could threaten England’s right to host the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) declined comment.
The ECB is expected to be forced to pay large sums in compensation if the Zimbabwe matches are cancelled.
There was a similar standoff in 2004, when then prime minister Tony Blair said he would prefer an England cricket tour of Zimbabwe not to go ahead, but refused to forbid the team from going and said it was up to the ECB to decide.
The board complained that it faced steep fines by the ICC if it made the decision itself to pull out of the tour.
A spokesperson for Britain’s Foreign Office said Britain was concerned about future cricket tours by countries ruled by ”dictators” such as Mugabe.
”International sports should never be a way for dictators to publicise their misrule,” he said.
”If the situation does not improve in Zimbabwe, we would not want to see the Zimbabwe team tour here in 2009, nor the England cricket team tour there in 2012.”
Talk of a ban provoked an angry response from Harare.
”This is a racist ploy. If we had an all-white team, they would have allowed it to tour,” said Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga. ”Sport should be a unifying force, not a political battleground.”
Britain, a former colonial power in Zimbabwe, has long been sharply critical of Mugabe, accusing him of human rights abuses and of ruining a once healthy economy.
The 84-year-old Zimbabwean leader, who has ruled for 28 years, is running for another five-year term in an election this month. He faces his biggest challenge from former finance minister Simba Makoni and long-time opponent Morgan Tsvangirai. – Reuters