Government letter clarifies England stance
Michael Vaughan: caught in the middle
England's cricket authorities may have been given a get-out clause in their dilemma over the Zimbabwe tour, after claiming to have received a letter from the government instructing them not to go.
Tim Lamb, the ECB's chief executive, said his letter from Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, was "tantamount to an instruction". Under ICC rules, teams may only withdraw from a fixture if there are safety risks or if there is a Government ban.
In his letter, Straw said the current situation in Zimbabwe is worse than it was this time last year, when England were faced with their World Cup crisis. "The EU, the US and others maintain targeted restrictive measures against leading members of the Zimbabwean regime," wrote Straw. "The UK has taken a leading role on this issue. You may wish to consider whether a high profile England cricket tour at this time is consistent with that approach."
Lamb added that the letter is "couched in political language" but "as close as we're going to get to an instruction". He told BBC Radio Five Live he would seek further clarification from the government before a final decision is made.
The ICC remain opposed to England's stance, and Ehsan Mani, the president, once again raised the possibility of financial redress if they fail to meet their obligations. "Where governments fall short of strong and decisive action," he said, "all members of the ICC are committed to touring."
The Zimbabwe Cricket Union, meanwhile, reminded England of the verbal undertaking they made a year ago, when the chairman David Morgan flew to Harare to negotiate over Zimbabwe's summer tour of England. Peter Chingoka, their chairman, said: "We have a right to host England and they have a corresponding duty to honour their obligations."
"I'm well aware of our international obligations," said Lamb. "But at the end of the day our directors will make the right decision on whether to go or not." The ECB executive board will meet for a dull debate on January 29, after Lamb has met with Mani and Malcolm Speed, the ICC's chief executive.
Lord MacLaurin, the former ECB chairman and current chief of Vodafone, England's main sponsors, called on the government to clarify its position. "The government took the decision to take us into war in Iraq," said MacLaurin. "The regime in Iraq is not that different from what's going on in Zimbabwe."