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May 5, 2004
Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has said that he does not want England's scheduled tour of Zimbabwe to go ahead. But he admitted that was different from ordering the England & Wales Cricket Board to call off the proposed tour in October - and without direct government intervention the ECB could be heavily penalised by the International Cricket Council. ECB officials are meeting with Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, and the culture secretary Tessa Jowell on Thursday (May 6).
Speaking in the House of Commons, and replying to Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democratic opposition party, Blair said that the government could not order the England team to stay at home. He explained: "My personal opinion [is] that we would prefer them not to go. But there is a difference between doing that and ordering them not to go, which I think would step over the proper line. The foreign secretary is meeting the ECB tomorrow. I think many people however believe - I think rightly - that the problem actually resides with the ICC."
Tim Lamb, the ECB's embattled chief executive, has admitted that England are only reluctantly proceeding with the tour, under pain of substantial fines and possible suspension from the ICC. Lamb told BBC Sport: "A debate is being considered, but the government's position is that they have no legal powers to prevent us. We would prefer not to tour, and the players will go with heavy hearts. [But] the downside and fallout from us not going could have a catastrophic effect on the fabric of the game in England and Wales."
Unsurprisingly, Blair's comments went down like a lead balloon with the ICC. "It is disappointing but unsurprising that a politician should attempt to shift the blame in this way," said Ehsan Mani, the ICC's president. "Mr Blair is seeking to divert attention away from his own inaction in dealing with Zimbabwe by attempting to exert inappropriate pressure on an international sporting body to make a political decision.
"Unfortunately, the one consistent aspect of Mr Blair's approach to Zimbabwe has been its inconsistency. His government maintains diplomatic links with Zimbabwe, allows British companies to invest heavily in and trade openly with Zimbabwe, and welcomes athletes representing Zimbabwe to the UK. This issue has been on his radar for more than 18 months."
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