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Explainer: Zimbabwe's ICC suspension and its implications

In a country already battling an economic meltdown, the suspension has made hundreds of people unemployed and affected several thousands more

Liam Brickhill
Liam Brickhill
Zimbabwe supporters sing the national anthem, Day 1, 2nd Test, Zimbabwe v New Zealand, August 6, 2016

AFP / Getty Images

Last week, Zimbabwe became the first Full Member to be suspended by the ICC. While Associate members have been suspended before, and at times even expelled, the ICC's sanctioning of Zimbabwe is unprecedented - but perhaps not unexpected. This is the culmination of a saga that started to heat up only a month ago, but has deep roots.
Why were Zimbabwe suspended?
The ICC met in London last week and, among other things, decided to immediately suspend Zimbabwe for, officially at least, failing to provide a process for free and democratic elections, and failing to ensure that there is no government interference in its governance.
This ruling came as a result of the decision by the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) to suspend the entire Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) board after elections that the SRC claimed were unconstitutional (while also raising various other issues and objections), in June. The SRC called for a financial audit of ZC, reached out to the ICC for help and guidance, and put in place an interim committee to run cricket in the country until fresh board elections, which were to be held in September next year.
What does the suspension mean in effect?
Zimbabwe's funding has been cut off, and the representative men's and women's sides have been barred from taking part in ICC events. But given the financial state of ZC, not to mention the country of Zimbabwe, the suspension means that all professional cricket in Zimbabwe has ceased. ZC has said that Zimbabwe will no longer take part in a scheduled tri-series in Bangladesh in September, players won't be paid salaries or match fees, and even the upcoming domestic season cannot be staged. In a country already battling an economic meltdown, the suspension has made hundreds of people unemployed and affected several thousands more. The women's team has been the first, and hardest, hit.
What is the Sports and Recreation Commission?
The SRC is a statutory body created by an Act of Parliament in Zimbabwe in 1991 - a sort of parastatal that is guided by Acts of Parliament, and appointed by the minister of sport, but does not actually form part of Zimbabwe's government. Its mandate is to regulate all registered sporting associations in the country, ensuring they adhere to their registered constitutions, among other things. It is chaired by Gerald Mlotshwa.
Who is Gerald Mlotshwa, and why is that important?
A lawyer by profession, Mlotshwa has, for a couple of years now, shown a keen interest in Zimbabwean sport. His firm, Titan Law, sponsors both rugby and polo teams; he chairs an organising committee for the Sables, the national rugby team; and his connection to Zimbabwean cricket goes far beyond his chairmanship of the SRC board. He is also the son-in-law of Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and not without power.
In April last year, amid the fallout following Zimbabwe's failed World Cup qualifying campaign, Mlotshwa wrote to the SRC with a list of grievances aimed at ZC - the same as were taken up when he himself became SRC chairman. At the same time, Mlotshwa was the legal representative of the centrally-contracted players seeking their unpaid salaries from ZC, and according to communications leaked to the local press, was also thought by some players to be a good candidate to help them as they sought to unionise. He also represented former national coach Heath Streak in his defamation case against board chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani, and in Streak's liquidation suit against ZC.
So it was Mlotshwa who kicked the battle between the SRC and ZC off?
Actually, this isn't the first time that the SRC has attempted to alter Zimbabwean cricket's course. In January 2004, the SRC dissolved ZC's board in the midst of the so-called 'rebel' crisis, putting in place an interim committee to run cricket for six months. Again, in 2006, the SRC stepped in and dissolved all five of the existing provincial boards. In 2013, the SRC issued a directive that only former players could become national selectors, escalating a row over power and politics in the game in Zimbabwe. Ironically, it was the SRC's dissolution of a previous ZC board that originally allowed Mukuhlani to rise to the vice-chairmanship of the ZC board under Peter Chingoka, before Chingoka retired in 2014. He later deposed Wilson Manase at the helm in 2015, having announced his candidature for the chairmanship on the morning of the election.
So, the SRC's move to dissolve the ZC board in June was hardly unprecedented. It was, however, one of the first actions taken by the new SRC board after Mlotshwa was appointed chairman in May. Having previously made clear his desire to get stuck into Mukuhlani's ZC board under the guise of his legal practice, Mlotshwa made good on his plans almost as soon as he took up his SRC chairmanship. But he insists it's "nothing personal".
If the SRC have stepped in before, why is this time any different?
Good question. A quick look at the other Full Members shows that some government involvement in cricketing affairs is hardly rare. And if you've been following Zimbabwean cricket over the years, previous instances of government - or at the very least, politically motivated - meddling in ZC are easy to find. So, why was this time seen as so bad? One sticking point appears to be the unilateral nature of the actions taken by the SRC, the lengthy term of the proposed interim committee (15 months) and the fact that they invoked the powers of the SRC Act before meeting ZC in court (where, incidentally, ZC's appeal was dismissed "with costs"). But while they won't admit it publicly, the ICC also appear to believe that the SRC's move would have led to the looting of funds coming in to ZC.
So the ICC suspended Zimbabwe Cricket in order to stop the Zimbabwean government from getting its hands on ICC money?
That seems to be part of it, yes. While it is true that Zimbabwe is in the midst of a serious financial crisis, it might be asked on what evidence it could be claimed that the SRC move was a front for a government money-grab. It's unclear what exactly convinced the ICC of such, or what they have made of prior claims that ZC was already being mismanaged. But there appears to have been a complete breakdown in trust. All funding to Zimbabwe was immediately frozen when the current board was suspended, and they will receive no further funding while under suspension. ZC have called for the results of SRC's forensic audit to be released, and said they would welcome another audit if the ICC so wish.
Was the SRC's interim committee filled with government plants?
The ICC's argument against government meddling might hold a little more water were it not for the impeccable credentials of the committee set up by the SRC. Headed by David Ellman-Brown, who is a former national team manager, ZC chief executive, ICC Finance Committee member, Honorary Life President of ZC, and Honorary Life member of the MCC, the committee also included former ICC match referee (and ZC vice-chairman), Ahmed Ebrahim, and a diverse cast of experienced administrators - none of whom are politicians or civil servants. The SRC was also quick to point out that any persons recommended by the ICC could also join the interim committee.
How do they compare to the elected ZC board?
The board elected under Mukuhlani includes many familiar names, particularly in education and sports administration, but it cannot be said to be in quite the same league as the interim committee with regards to experience. Many of the board members have been retained, having been elected in 2015 or previously, and most have experience as provincial chairpersons, or in provincial structures. But the ZC board is not free from its own connections to government and the civil service, and it's worth noting that Mukuhlani himself ran for the Mhondoro-Ngezi constituency as a Zanu-PF candidate last year, and is also clearly politically involved.
Politics aside, why can't the ICC let the team continue to play in ICC tournaments, as has been the case for Nepal?
The ICC's stance is that Zimbabwe's breach was more serious than Nepal's, and that there was a cumulative effect from the long-running saga of inconsistencies around cricket administration in the country. Zimbabwe will still technically be able to play in bilateral series, although under suspension there is no way that they could afford to host any team, or pay their players.
So, what now?
It's hard to escape the feeling that the ICC has finally grown weary of the perennial sagas at ZC, and has simply decided to cut them loose - at least one former player sees things that way. There appears to be no recovery plan, beyond the ICC's directive that Mukuhlani and his board be reinstated before they look at the matter again at their October meeting. In the meantime, Zimbabwe's men's and women's sides have been left without a roadmap, or much hope.
Allrounder Solomon Mire has announced his international retirement, and more could follow him unless a solution is found soon. While under suspension, the women's side will miss the 2020 T20 World Cup qualifiers next month, and the men will miss the October edition, cutting off a vital lifeline in the form of their participation in global tournaments.
The ZC leadership has offered to work with the SRC to find an "amicable" solution to the crisis, but whether or not Zimbabwean cricket will be able to recover from this latest, and deepest, crisis is unclear.

Liam Brickhill is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent