Zimbabwe v England, 1st ODI, Harare November 28, 2004

An uneasy calm

Steve Price in Harare

Harare Sports Club seems such an incongruous place to be at the centre of a highly controversial tour. Near the heart of the city, it is nevertheless lined by trees and situated in peaceful surroundings. The predominant colour is green, the light green of a beautifully maintained outfield and the dark green of the trees both inside and outside the ground. There was an air of tranquillity as Duncan Fletcher oversaw the England team training on the outfield yesterday.

The tour that England faced with much trepidation has so far been totally uneventful. Andy Walpole, the team's media liaison officer, and members of the press contingent whose dilemma had almost caused a last-minute abandonment, confirmed that the only unusual aspect so far was the heavy media attention they had received. There had been no demonstrations, no excessive security, no hostility from anybody they had met, and the only sign of discontent was some graffiti on a wall advising them to go home.

But appearances can be deceptive. The immediate parallel that springs to mind is South Africa during the apartheid years. There, the opulent white areas were a world apart from the real life in Soweto, and it was easily possible to visit that country without encountering any evidence of the latter's existence. Here in Zimbabwe, a visitor unaware of the plight of this beleaguered country can still come and go, in certain areas only, and leave the country under the impression that there is little wrong.

But there is always another side of the coin. Just across the road, in fact. The main entrance to the club overlooks the high walls of State House, the personal dwelling place of Robert Mugabe, the ruler who continues to hold on to power against the will of the people and seems prepared to destroy his entire country so as to maintain that power. Unwary visitors wandering down the wrong side of that street have had traumatic experiences at the hands of the president's security guards who patrol the area with itchy fingers on automatic weapons. The England team have been worried about the possibility of Mugabe meeting them and wanting to shake hands with them. They need not worry. There is a frightened little man hiding behind those walls, terrified as to what might happen to him should he lose power, and he will never dare venture anywhere he might be seen by ordinary Zimbabweans.

It does not do to take the comparison with apartheid South Africa too far. Sport played its part in toppling apartheid, even though it took more than 20 years of boycotts to achieve its objective. No amount of sporting boycotts would have any significant effect on the Mugabe regime. A refusal by England to tour would have been a totally futile gesture politically. But, as Andy Flower has pointed out, the presence of England will once again bring the plight of this unhappy country under the world spotlight. Mugabe would prefer it to be forgotten, as was communist Albania for so many years.

Robin Brown, the groundsman and the the man accused of deliberately sabotaging the pitch when Sri Lanka bowled the new-look Zimbabwe team out for 35 last April, is none too pleased by the changed programme, whereby the Harare matches will be played on Sunday and Wednesday instead of Friday and Sunday. A good cook cannot readily delay the moment his creations emerge from the oven by a few hours when it is half-ready, and expectant mothers are seriously inconvenienced if requested to hold on for a couple of days. Similarly Brown's pitches were prepared with the original dates in mind, and the delay will not see them at their best. They will be slightly overbaked, and he estimates 250 rather than 300 will be a winning score. As long as there is no more sabotage ...

And so, under beautifully warm, sunny skies, England trained, and later in the day, so did Zimbabwe. England looked like a well-oiled machine, established in its regimen and looking impressive. Zimbabwe appeared a reasonable club side, not altogether used to heavy practice but deciding to give it a good shot anyway, with some laughs along the way. There was not the intensity of the Australians, but neither was there the laxity that the West Indians have shown at times. The traditional fabulous Zimbabwean fielding was not much in evidence. A team of callow youths will face England.

Yet there is one factor that could make this match much closer than would appear likely on paper. England are basically playing under protest; they do not want to be there. Zimbabwe are fired with enthusiasm and eager to go, while England are simply eager to go home. One cannot expect the best possible performance from a team that does not want to be there, while a large dose of enthusiasm can cover a mass of inexperience and give a large rise to limited ability.

It is very much a David and Goliath confrontation - except that this time David does not possess any artillery unknown to his opponent. Goliath should still win easily, but they might find David an awkward little customer in the process. And behind the scenes, Mugabe's thugs continue to seek out supporters of the opposition, children continue to starve and the country's economy continues in freefall as the government tries in the only ways it knows how to regain its long-lost support from the masses.

Guilty though the English visitors may feel, they can do nothing to influence that situation. The best they can do is aim to give Mugabe's cricket team - as it virtually is now, although the current players are not to blame for this - the biggest hiding they can muster.