Less than three months after England's failure to fulfil their World Cup fixture in Harare, a party of Zimbabwean cricketers arrived at Gatwick. As their visit represented something of a political hot potato, the England and Wales Cricket Board shared a common aim with its team: to get through this awkward little tour without suffering too much embarrassment.
Though the mandarins came under far more pressure than the players, both would emerge largely unscathed. The Zimbabwean captain, Heath Streak, was leading a painfully inexperienced squad: only Grant Flower had scored a Test hundred. Streak thus had rather less ammunition than Kate Hoey, the Labour MP and former Minister for Sport.
"The Zimbabwe Cricket Union have [President] Mugabe as their patron," Hoey wrote in the Daily Telegraph on April 19. "Yet on May 22 at Lord's, the most famous ground in the world, England will play against a country soaked in the blood of men, women and children who have done nothing other than stand up for the freedoms and rights that we in this country take for granted."
Hoey's invective served as a rallying cry for the Stop The Tour campaign, which was soon claiming the support of around 100 MPs. Yet only a handful of them attended the first day's demonstrations outside the Grace Gates, where the most recognisable figure was the serial agitator Peter Tatchell. The game suffered two low-key interruptions in the afternoon, when a couple of Tatchell's comrades wandered on to the pitch with placards. And that was about as rough as things got for the ECB.
Crucially, the Stop The Tour movement went unsupported by the two political parties who could have given it legitimacy. One was the ruling British Labour Party, whose cabinet minister Tessa Jowell approved the tour in a letter to the ECB. The other was the Zimbabwean opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who seemed to view cricket as a useful tool for redirecting the British media's attention towards Mugabe's outrages. The US-led war against Iraq, which preceded the tour, meant that the plight of millions of Zimbabweans facing food shortages had gone largely unreported.
After the May 22 demonstration at Lord's, the Stop The Tour protest dropped almost out of sight, and The Times newspaper took over. One of its correspondents, Owen Slot, took a particularly hard line on the selection of the Zimbabwean squad - which he argued was politically vetted - and savaged the smooth-talking Peter Chingoka, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, for his constant dissembling. "When the conversation strays to topics anywhere beyond bat and ball," Slot wrote, "this is a squad that is either frightened or incapable of talking truthfully."
Slot was right, of course, but it was not entirely the players' fault. The treatment of Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, who were reprimanded after their brave black-armband protest at the start of the World Cup and announced their retirements from international cricket when Zimbabwe were knocked out, made it clear that dissenters would not be tolerated. Flower himself admitted that he had talked a number of team-mates out of emulating him, arguing that: "If everybody took the same stand, you would run the serious risk of eliminating most of the side in one fell swoop. From what I understand, the MDC would not be in favour of such drastic action."
Without Flower in particular, Zimbabwe proved to be a soft touch on the field. Their bowling was often respectable, thanks to Streak's exemplary leadership, but they simply could not make any runs. In two Tests and five completed one-day internationals, they passed 200 on just three occasions, with a top score of only 253. Their one worthwhile win - a four-wicket triumph over England in the NatWest Series opener - was underpinned by the only meaningful innings of any quality, Grant Flower's unbeaten 96. They were even thrashed by Ireland.
England cashed in on Zimbabwe's naivety. For the first time in 25 years, they won every Test in a series - even if the series was only two games long. And with Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick and Andrew Flintoff unavailable through injury, they were able to blood a few novices of their own.
Much of the pre-publicity focused on the artfully styled head and shoulders of James Anderson, the emerging poster boy of English cricket, who followed up an encouraging World Cup by taking five for 73 at Lord's on his Test debut. But there were also debuts for the Yorkshire captain, Anthony McGrath, who became the first Englishman since David Gower to score fifties in his first two Test innings, and the Somerset paceman Richard Johnson. After numerous near misses with England over the previous eight years, Johnson finally won selection for the Second Test at Chester-le-Street. He was soon making up for lost time, finding himself on a hat-trick in his first over, and finishing the innings with six for 33.
At the end of that humiliating match, which they lost by an innings and 69 runs, Zimbabwe's downward slide continued with the removal of opening batsman Mark Vermeulen from the tour. There appeared to be nothing politically motivated about this move: instead, Vermeulen was being punished for what the team management described as a series of petty indisciplines.
It quickly emerged that Vermeulen had had a reputation for being a hothead ever since his schooldays, when he once reacted to a bad lbw decision by walking off with the stumps. If there was a last straw for the officials on this tour, it came after close of play on the Friday of the Second Test, when Vermeulen refused to take the bus with the rest of the team from the ground to their nearby hotel. His solitary mood may be partly explained by the fact that he had just completed a rare and unenviable feat: bagging a pair on the same day of a Test match.
England finished the series in contrastingly upbeat mode, both in the dressing-room and the executives' offices. But the sting in the tail was still to come. After the Harare shemozzle, the ZCU were hardly going to fulfil their summer obligations without asking the ECB for a few assurances in return, notably over England's scheduled visit to Zimbabwe in November 2004. The board had no alternative but to commit but, as the Zimbabwe crisis deepened at the end of 2003, the chances of England actually going, barring a change of regime, looked increasingly remote.
Match reports for
British Universities v Zimbabweans at Birmingham, May 3-5, 2003
Worcestershire v Zimbabweans at Worcester, May 9-12, 2003
Sussex v Zimbabweans at Hove, May 15-18, 2003
Middlesex v Zimbabweans at Shenley, May 30-Jun 2, 2003
Tour Match: Ireland v Zimbabweans at Belfast, Jun 13, 2003
Tour Match: Ireland v Zimbabweans at Eglinton, Jun 15, 2003
Somerset v Zimbabweans at Taunton, Jun 17, 2003
Hampshire v Zimbabweans at Southampton, Jun 19, 2003
Essex v Zimbabweans at Chelmsford, Jun 22, 2003