England agree to five-match series in Zimbabwe
England's cricketers will play five one-day internationals in Zimbabwe later this year, after the England & Wales Cricket Board concluded that there was no threat to the players' security. The team will play two matches in Harare on November 26 and 28, and three more in the space of five days in Bulawayo, before moving on to Johannesburg to start their Test tour of South Africa on December 6.
The announcement is sure to meet with disapproval in some quarters, given the human-rights record of Robert Mugabe's government, but David Morgan, the ECB chairman, explained that in the absence of any firm instruction from the British government, they had no choice but to comply with the requirements of the ICC's Future Tours Programme.
"The board has concluded that the tour to Zimbabwe must go ahead, subject to it being safe and secure to do so," said Morgan. "[Since] March 2004, it has become a contractual obligation for the England team to tour Zimbabwe, and if the ECB were to breach this regulation by not touring ... we could be subject to severe financial penalties, including a possibility of suspension from the ICC."
The possibility still remains that several of England's senior players may choose not to undertake this opening leg of what is going to be an arduous winter campaign. Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff have young families to think about, and Flintoff's dodgy ankle would probably benefit from an extra fortnight's rest. Meanwhile, the strength of the opposition is hardly enticing - yesterday, Zimbabwe were beaten by four wickets in their Champions Trophy warm-up match against the less-than-mighty USA.
"Any individual who decides not to make himself available for reasons of personal conscience would not be penalised," stressed Morgan, "[although] we emphasised that our preferred solution was for all players and management to make themselves available to tour.
"I must emphasise again that by undertaking the tour, the players and management will be in no way condoning the situation in Zimbabwe, but rather following the direction of their board and recognising that the tour has to proceed to safeguard the interests of the game. Furthermore, the tour party will neither be involved in official functions nor meet with members of the government during the tour."
In response to the announcement, the Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA) accepted the difficult situation faced by the ECB, although it reiterated its reservations about the tour.
"The decision to tour in no way indicates that players are seeking to ignore the human rights violations in Zimbabwe," said Richard Bevan, the PCA's chief executive. "We should look instead to the government to provide the lead on any political or moral imperative. They have not intervened on this issue, and continue to allow trade of many descriptions with Zimbabwe.
"The ECB rightly asserts that the impact of suspension on cricket's infrastructure would be devastating. Although the PCA believes it is unlikely that this penalty will be enforced, while any threat does exist that England could be suspended from international cricket, the PCA and the players accept that the ECB has no option but to proceed with the tour."
Vaughan's reaction to the news telegraphed his misgivings. "All the players are aware of the serious nature of this situation," he said. "I am aware that deciding to tour is a huge decision for any player. We will continue to work closely with the ECB to ensure the players' situation is fully understood and a satisfactory outcome is arrived at."