May 22, 2003

A quintessentially English affair

Making a point: protestors outside the Grace Gates
© Getty Images

If the officials of the England & Wales Cricket Board had a sleepless night fearing civil unrest and rioting in St John's Wood, they needn't have worried. There were demonstrations outside Lord's, but they were fairly low-key - if noisy - and universally good-humoured.

The security had been beefed up, but it was discreet and by and large limited to a closer examination of bags than the usual cursory glance. This still caused consternation among one group of members, until they were assured that their bottles of wine weren't the reason for the search. Inside the ground there was a cordon of security men guarding the square, but the plethora of respresentatives of the media, sponsors, and ECB hangers-on milling about in the middle meant that any protesters would have struggled for elbow room, let alone to unfurl a banner.

The demonstrations were concentrated outside the Grace Gates where the main group, numbering 30 or 40, were cordoned off in an area opposite the entrance where they nosily and cheerfully blew whistles, chanted, and held up banners. These concentrated on anti-Mugabe slogans, although one accused Tim Lamb, the ECB's chief executive, of being "Mugabe's own Lord Haw Haw". Am open-top bus drove round the perimeter road, those on the top who braved the drizzle adding to the cacophony.

The ubiquitous Peter Tatchell was also in evidence, busily marshalling banner-wavers and ensuring that protestors were situated in spots where they would gain the maximum exposure from the large numbers of cameras and television crews assembled. Tatchell's Outrage group provided the photo opportunity courtesy of a man dressed as a cricketer with a blood-soaked bandage round his head.

Quiet determination outside Lord's
© Getty Images

There was briefly the threat of an disagreement when one gentlemen, holding up a banner encouraging passing drivers to "Honk for freedom in Zimbabwe", was told to move on by the police. Tatchell intervened, insisting that there was no justification in their request, and the police retreated. The man returned to his duties and the horns continued to sound. That was as heated as it got.

But while Tatchell, as ever, will probably get the coverage, the most effective work was being done by the group from the Zimbabwe Vigil organisation. They were handing out leaflets and black armbands, all done with a cheery smile, generally getting a good response from those on their way in to the ground. The cold day meant that many had overcoats on, most of which were dark, thus negating the visibility of the armband. But it was the thought that counted.

Kate Hoey, the former sports minister, took an active role, genially fielding requests from the media, talking to spectators, and handing out armbands with a politician's skill. Rarely can she have turned in a more polished performance, even when on the campaign trail.

The contrast with the brutal suppression of dissent in Zimbabwe couldn't have been more marked.