The Zimbabwe crisis June 29, 2005

What about the players?

New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Phil Goff, has joined the morality brigade seeking to put paid to New Zealand's August tour of Zimbabwe



Will Shane Bond have to wait even longer for his international return? © Getty Images

It started with the Green Party and now New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Phil Goff, has joined the morality brigade seeking to put paid to New Zealand's August tour of Zimbabwe and the return series next summer. Sadly, it's all too predictable with the general election just a few months away.

Their name may be the same colour as a cricket ground but that's where the Greens' attention to sport ends, unless of course there are political points to be scored. They are not alone though. Helen Clark, the Prime Minister, has gone on record saying that she wouldn't be seen dead in Zimbabwe and now Mr Goff is doing his bit. Amazingly, despite his nation having nothing to do with the matter, Cricket South Africa's CEO Gerald Majola has been called on to defend South Africa's cricketing policy on Zimbabwe.

While the politicians are at the centre of this kafuffle and the cricket administrators are on the outskirts, somewhere in the distance are the most important but forgotten group: the players. Ultimately they, both Zimbabweans and New Zealanders alike, are the ones who will suffer if the tours are cancelled.

After all the drama he faced over the player dispute last year, should Heath Streak be denied the opportunity to continue his Test career? Just when he's in line to play his first international in two-and-a-half years, should Shane Bond be similarly stymied?

In purely financial terms, an abandoned tour would mean lost match payments for two Tests and a possible five one-dayers for the New Zealanders. For new players such as Craig Cumming and James Marshall or those higher up the contract pay-scale, it's not an insignificant amount to go without.

At the conclusion of New Zealand's last Test in April, Stephen Fleming was asked the team's thoughts on the tour of Zimbabwe. His response was that they would gather information about any issues before making their decisions. With the literature now back on the shelf, the players' decisions have been made.

Every player has the opportunity to say "no" just as Stuart MacGill did prior to Australia's tour of Zimbabwe last year. For politicians to attempt to make the players' decisions for them is an insult to their intelligence.

Agreeing to tour does not mean that a player is making a statement one way or the other. Nor is he required too. It has been suggested that the New Zealand team will avoid situations that might be seen as promoting the regime of Robert Mugabe. Frankly, it is a line not needed at all as cricket teams don't tour anywhere to make political statements, they tour to play cricket. Zimbabwe is no different: the players will train, sleep, eat and play.

The New Zealand Press Association said yesterday that Mr Goff is planning to lobby the International Cricket Council to not penalise New Zealand if it does not tour Zimbabwe. "It is time the ICC showed some leadership on this issue", Mr Goff was reported as saying. Today he went a step further telling the NZPA: "The inflexibility of the ICC and its willingness to turn a blind eye to such gross human rights abuses is not appropriate".

The question must be asked: why is the ICC the target? It does not hold itself out as a political organisation. On the contrary, the ICC's mission statement says that "it will lead by promoting the game as a global sport, protecting the spirit of cricket and optimising commercial opportunities for the benefit of the game".

Political issues are not only an irrelevant consideration for the ICC at present, they can, as here, have the effect of countering the promotion of cricket. If New Zealand and other international sides do not arrive, what chance of cricket thriving in Zimbabwe? Should Zimbabwe's children have their cricket dreams stolen?

It should also be added that the ICC is not entirely commercially driven - its partnership with UNAIDS being testament to that. Similarly, offering assistance to impoverished people goes hand-in-hand with the ICC's Development Programme.

The short answer is that, unless its mandate is quickly modified, the ICC can only do what it is empowered to. Unlike the ultra-competitive world of soccer - Greece's Euro 2004 success being a recent standout example - cricket has not yet fully arrived and, with lingering governance issues in the United States, Kenya and, to a lesser extent, the West Indies, the ICC simply cannot afford for Zimbabwe cricket to disappear.

The fear for New Zealand Cricket is that a refusal to tour Zimbabwe will incur a US$2 million ICC fine for breach of its contractual obligations. It's a loss that New Zealand cricket can ill afford, for reasons financial and otherwise.

Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show