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The Australian government has ordered the country's cricket team not to tour Zimbabwe in September. John Howard, the prime minister, said it was not fair to leave the decision up to Cricket Australia and the players.
However, James Sutherland, the CA chief executive, has foreshadowed the possibility of relocating the three-ODI series to a neutral venue, possibly South Africa. Howard said he had received legal advice that the government had the power to cancel the trip to Zimbabwe.
"The government through the foreign minister has written to Cricket Australia instructing that the tour not go ahead," he said on ABC television. "Whilst it pains me both as a cricket lover and someone who generally believes these things should be left to sporting organisations ... I don't think we have any alternative."
Howard said the government could prevent the tour by stopping the players' passports being used to leave the country. He said his discussions with players and CA indicated they did not want to act against public opinion but also hoped it would be the government that made the decision.
"I don't think it's fair to leave a foreign policy decision of this magnitude on the shoulders of young sportsmen," Howard said. "It's much better, in the end, for the government to take the rap.
"I hope the rest of the cricketing world understands that, and it would be a very good idea if the rest of the cricket world adopted the same attitude towards [Robert] Mugabe's regime. I'm not going to stand around and allow some kind of aid and comfort be given to him by the greatest cricketing team in the world visiting his country."
He said he was confident CA would follow the wishes of the government, which could take further action if necessary. "In the end we can prevent people taking part in such a tour," Howard said. "We would rather that not be the case but we are making it very plain to Cricket Australia and I think they will understand the import."
Sutherland said CA recognised the government's responsibility in such international matters and would assess the advice as quickly as possible. He said CA was still committed to ICC's Future Tours Program and would examine the options regarding the series.
"We are obliged to do what we can to help Zimbabwe cricketers and we could help them by playing somewhere else," Sutherland told AAP. "We are discussing with the government where we could play Zimbabwe at a neutral venue."
Ricky Ponting said it was appropriate for the government to issue instructions in the case of the Zimbabwe visit. "As far as this situation is concerned, I'm comfortable that the Australian government has taken the responsibility for making international affairs decisions on behalf of the country," Ponting said. "As captain of Australia I've never had a problem playing against international cricketers from Zimbabwe."
Cricinfo was unable to get a response from Zimbabwe Cricket as it refuses to answer any questions put to them by us as it objects to our coverage of cricket in the country.