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Martin Williamson

Out of sight, out of mind

The opening Zimbabwe-Bangladesh match was played out in virtual secrecy. There was no television coverage, no media updates, no live scores. The only people who knew what was happening were the few hundred die-hards inside Harare Sports Club

Anthony Ireland, who took three wickets, appeals without success. Not that anyone outside the ground would know ... © AFP
We live in an age where news is instant. We accept and expect that we can follow sporting events in almost real time wherever they are played. We also almost always assume that major games will be available on TV, albeit increasingly often behind a subscription wall. Sport needs the oxygen of publicity to be taken seriously.
In Harare today, there was a full ODI taking place between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. While it might not have had the appeal of other major one-dayers, it was still, according to the ICC's own rankings, a game between two Full Member countries who are ranked in the world's top ten. And yet for long periods the match was played out in virtual secrecy. There was no television coverage, no media updates, no live scores. The only people who knew what was happening were the few hundred die-hards inside Harare Sports Club.
Cricinfo was - understandably - inundated with complaints. However, as with all other major media outlets, we were powerless to do anything.
We had tried to send journalists to Zimbabwe to cover the matches but had come up against the brick wall of Zimbabwe's notorious Information Ministry. Not only do they insist on vetting anyone who wants to report from the country, but they demand a US$600 fee for issuing accreditation. This is extortion which is almost unknown anywhere else, and the primary aim is to deter anyone from wanting to travel. It is worth remembering that the media inside Zimbabwe is almost all under the control of the state.
The second option was to send someone from inside the country. Not as easy as it sounds, as many reporters have had their accreditation withdrawn, travelling is now made hard by crippling fuel shortages, while others are just plain scared.
The fallback was television. As late as last Wednesday, there was no guaranteed TV coverage. A source inside the production company said that they had been told that as Zimbabwe Cricket could not guarantee payments needed to make this happen, there would be no broadcast. Last-minute negotiations resolved this, but too late for anything to be sold outside Zimbabwe (although there are hopes that the remaining three matches might be sold abroad).
Come today, the millions of Bangladesh supporters round the world turned to the web to follow the game. The only problem was that even inside Zimbabwe there was no coverage. Without any explanation, local TV turned to religious programmes and a quiz show where the quizmaster got more questions wrong than the contestants. ZTV did not answer the telephones and nor could anyone from the board be raised. Finally, local coverage spluttered into life in the afternoon.
Clearly, Zimbabwe has major problems, the vast majority far more pressing than the lack of television coverage of a game which, judging by the dismal turnout, few local people care about anyway. But the ZC board receives millions of dollars from the ICC every year. For that it manages not to play any Test cricket, not to run any domestic first-class or one-day competitions, and to pay its players in an utterly worthless local currency. Is it too much to ask that it actually gets its act together and manages to offer what little product it has to a wider audience?
And what of the ICC? Issues were flagged with it about TV coverage early last week, and we were assured all was in hand. It is the guardian of the world game, and recent media deals have shown it is hardly short of a dollar or two. It has a responsibility to ensure that the game is not presented in such a poor light. Starved of publicity in a world where there is fierce competition, cricket could soon become an irrelevance.
The ICC's track record in Zimbabwe is there for all to see and critics are quick to lambaste it for what they claim are its constant turning of a blind eye to a swathe of accusations made against the way the board operates. Too often, the excuse of things being "beyond our remit" is trotted out. While what happened today was not in any way the ICC's fault, it was, nevertheless, a disgrace and the ICC owes it to fans around the world - especially the millions of Bangladesh fans - to take action to ensure it does not happen again, and to find out how such a mess occurred.
And if ZC cannot even manage to sort this fundamental issue out, can it really be said to be fit for purpose?

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo