Moves to isolate Zimbabwe cricket internationally gathered more momentum this week when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) began preliminary talks with India.
Giles Clarke, the ECB chair, met his counterpart from the Indian board, Sharad Pawar, at Lord’s in the wake of the British government’s decision to impose a partial ban on Zimbabwe touring England next summer.
The British government said this week that, after Robert Mugabe’s suppression of the opposition party, it would prevent Zimbabwe’s players from entering Britain to play a scheduled Test and one-day series. But it baulked at extending the ban to the World Twenty20 which, although it will be staged in England, is organised by the International Cricket Council.
The hope of the government and the ECB is that the ICC will take its own action against Zimbabwe when the executive board meets in Dubai next Wednesday.
Cricket South Africa chairperson Norman Arendse confirmed that Ray Mali, the South African who is now the ICC president, would table the Zimbabwe issue for discussion at next week’s meeting.
Were the ICC to take a characteristically soft line, however, the government would be faced with either imposing a further ban, which would in all probability see the tournament taken from England, or face a charge of rank hypocrisy for admitting Zimbabwe a month after they are banned.
The possibility of decisive action depends largely on India’s attitude. Any motion to suspend Zimbabwe will require the support of eight of the 10 full members, arithmetic which demands the acquiescence of the Asian bloc.
Significantly, South Africa, Zimbabwe’s most loyal long-time supporter, seems ready to take action, having suspended bilateral relations with Zimbabwe Cricket this week. But from India there has so far been a disturbing silence.
The ECB’s first opportunity to lobby came during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of India’s first World Cup win. While the 1983 team strolled on to the Lord’s outfield to receive felicitations from the balcony, Clarke planned altogether more serious discussions with Pawar.
The ECB’s belief is that India, the dominant commercial figure in the international game, must now recognise that with power comes responsibility and that it must respond to a clear moral need to suspend Zimbabwe.
But Pawar owes his position as ICC president-elect to support from Zimbabwe, the only non-Asian country to support him in last year’s election, which he drew 5-5 against former ECB chair David Morgan. The candidates then negotiated their own compromise, in which each will serve a two-year term, Morgan from the end of next week’s annual meeting, Pawar from 2010.
Morgan has been a prime mover in attempts to resolve the Zimbabwe issue, having been dogged by it as ECB chair. This week he welcomed the British government’s intervention and acknowledged that India held the key.
‘It has to be good news, against the background of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, that the British government has issued this letter. There is every chance that it [action against Zimbabwe] could happen, but it would be a very difficult decision.
‘The executive board decided [last year] by a substantial majority that politics and cricket should not mix. For matters to move forward, there will have to be a change in that regard. It will be a difficult discussion. India and Zimbabwe are close and India’s position is crucial.â€
Morgan’s emollient negotiating approach in his time as ECB chair went some way towards improving Anglo-Indian relations and his own relations with Pawar were good enough to achieve an amicable compromise over the presidency, but he now faces his biggest test in Dubai next week, even though he has yet to take office officially.
India may be tempted to use the Zimbabwe issue to horse-trade, most notably about the toughening of England’s attitude to the unofficial Indian Cricket League. The presence of ICL players in county sides has already caused the Indian board to threaten that those counties will be banned from the inaugural club Twenty20 Champions League in September.
But there are indications that the ECB will accept a banning of Zimbabwe for the World Twenty20, even if it means losing the right to host it. The possible consequences of doing that give the government a dilemma. To ban a country unilaterally from a world event could be seen as breaking the terms of the staging agreement and might have a negative impact on events such as the 2012 Olympics and the 2019 cricket World Cup. – Guardian News and Media Ltd 2008 and Mail & Guardian reporter