As Zimbabwe slips further into political and economic paralysis, under the oppressive regime of Robert Mugabe, the issue of England's forthcoming Test tour to the country is looming large on the agenda. Can a sporting event be cancelled on moral grounds? In an e-mail exclusive to Wisden CricInfo, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, Peter Chingoka, addresses some critical issues and clarifies the ZCU's position:
Let's start with what is the ground reality in Zimbabwe?
By "ground reality" we assume you are referring to safety and security. That has never been and is not an issue for cricket in Zimbabwe. As evidence of this, look at our recent record of international matches and incoming tours:
We successfully hosted five matches of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2003, followed by the full West Indies tour [two Tests and five ODIs] towards the end of the year. We have just had Namibia here playing against our A team and Under-19 sides. We are preparing for the tour by Bangladesh commencing next week, which will be followed by tours by Sri Lanka and Australia.
Then there have been various international tennis, soccer and rugby teams visiting Zimbabwe, as well as future tours scheduled in those disciplines. As we write, the Greece Davis Cup tennis team is in Zimbabwe, preparing for matches this weekend. Over the past two years, Tennis Zimbabwe has hosted Portugal, Belarus, Belgium and Italy in Davis Cup ties.
On the other hand, if by "ground reality" you mean the state of the game, then consider the words of an independent and prominent South African cricket commentator, Mike Haysman, in his SuperCricket column of November 26, 2003: "My conclusion is that Zimbabwe cricket is in a healthy state. Young talented players of all ages are representing their nation and while they will be stretched for some time when confronted by teams who have a wide base to choose players from, the potential is exciting."
How is the international turmoil affecting the ZCU's development of the game in the country?
`International turmoil' is not a term we recognize in describing cricket in this country. In terms of development, the ZCU is driving an ambitious and exciting programme that is taking the game to the majority of the population.
We have more than 100-full time coaches working in schools and communities, 65 children between the ages of 12 and 18 are recipients of scholarships which pay for their education in prominent cricket-playing schools. We also have the CFX Academy, coached by Phil Simmons and the Under-19 side, so development is thriving and bringing new talent into the game.
Countries like England and Australia are pointing to the disturbing political and social climate in your country. Are they wrong to opt out in that matter?
The Zimbabwe Cricket Union, like its parental body the International Cricket Council (ICC) which is made up of 89-countries, is apolitical, and believes in the inviolable separation of sport and politics. We remain confident that members of this international family will abide by this principle.
According to you, should sport and politics mix?
No they should not, and that is an opinion that is held by the majority of the international cricket-playing community. It is also an opinion that is held by other sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and the world soccer-governing body, FIFA.
A couple of players from your own country have given up their careers in opposition to the current situation in Zimbabwe. And there are calls for the entire team to stop playing as it gives a fillip to the government. How difficult does this make your job?
We execute our mandate to run cricket in Zimbabwe to the best of our ability. If by "a couple of players" you mean Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, then you should know that Andrew Flower refused a contract offered to him by the ZCU in August 2002, saying he wanted to give up his international career to concentrate on playing for Essex during the northern-hemisphere summer and South Australia during the southern-hemisphere summer.
Zimbabwe did lose some senior players after the 2003 World Cup, as was the case with a number of other sides after that tournament. It is not correct to say that there are calls for the team to stop playing.
But don't you think the issue here is more than cricket? It is about the oppression and abuse of the Robert Mugabe regime. Boards not only have responsibility for their teams but also the fans and media. Given the Draconian approach of the police to protests of any kind, how could the safety of all people accompanying the tour be guaranteed?
These are very subjective and emotive descriptions. The best answer to the question is to refer back to the recent series that have been successfully hosted by Zimbabwe.
Yes, as the ZCU we are guaranteeing the safety of our visitors, but Zimbabwean sport is more than just cricket. In an earlier answer we showed you that there is a steady stream of international sporting traffic from African and European countries to Zimbabwe. How can it be safe for other sporting disciplines and not for cricket?
How would you respond to growing accusations that the ZCU has lost its independence and is becoming a mouthpiece for the ZANU-PF regime?
Let's be very clear on this point: we repeat that the ZCU is apolitical. We are an organization of diverse political, ethnic, cultural, racial and religious backgrounds working for the development and progress of cricket in Zimbabwe. We speak and act for the Zimbabwe cricket fraternity.
The ZCU has been accused of racialisation. Isn't that dangerous?
One of the key objectives of the Union is inclusivity for all members of society with an interest in cricket. This is one of our policies and is enshrined in part of our mission statement: "To actively promote, develop and administer the game of cricket for the benefit of all Zimbabweans without discrimination of any kind." This is not indicative of racialisation.
Can you comment on Bryan Strang's accusation in the February 2004 issue of The Wisden Cricketer, that he was told by a ZCU official "we are not interested in white players" ...
A hearing was conducted into the matter and Bryan Strang was part of it. Disciplinary action was taken and the concerned person was dismissed from the ZCU's employment. Our mission statement as quoted above highlights the falsity of this accusation. The statement is further vindicated by the composition of the teams representing Zimbabwe at all levels.
How about the England tour? Did you fear that the tour may be in jeopardy in spite of the assurances of the ECB chairman David Morgan during the World Cup?
In fact, David Morgan gave the ZCU the assurance at Harare after the World Cup, at the end of March. Subsequently, he told us that the ECB had reconfirmed this commitment. The November tour by England is part of the ICC Future Tours Programme and we expect England to come here, just as other countries have that we were scheduled to play. The tour is also imperative on the grounds of reciprocity: touring revenue is the lifeblood of any Test country. We toured England last year and we expect them to honour their commitment in the same way.
Would Zimbabwe like to play England in a neutral venue like Australia played against Pakistan?
No. Neutral venues are used when there are perceived safety and security issues. They are resorted to when both boards agree that there are justifiable and bona fide safety and security concerns in line with the Members' Agreement in relation to the Future Tours Programme. None of these factors pertain in Zimbabwe.
You have said that tours are the lifeblood for any cricketing nation as it gives them the monies. Now there are reports that the ECB may offer Zimbabwe US$1 million. Would you agree to that?
We do not wish to speculate. The latest formal correspondence we have had directly from the ECB is to the effect that they will not take any position on the tour until the end of February. It is therefore premature and inappropriate for us to comment at this time.
If England opts out of the tour on moral grounds it would set a precedent. Have you discussed this matter with the ICC?
The issue of the England tour will be discussed by the ICC at its March meeting in New Zealand.