London: England will play their World Cup fixture in Zimbabwe next month despite British government’s opposition, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) said Tuesday.
ECB chief executive Tim Lamb told a news conference at Lord’s: “The decision of the management board was unanimous. We have not been elected to make decisions of a political nature.”
He added that all England players had said they were ready to play in the February 13 game as long as it was still regarded as safe. “They are happy to fulfil their obligation to play in this match,” he said. “There is no indication any player wishes to withdraw.”
Five days ago culture, sport and media secretary Tessa Jowell told the ECB that the government opposed the match in Harare against Zimbabwe because of security concerns and what she called the appalling human rights record of President Robert Mugabe’s government.
Lamb blamed the government for a “policy vacuum” in trying to force cricket to make “a unique and unilateral sacrifice” while not stopping British companies from trading with Zimbabwe, a former British colony.
Lamb, though, said England would not take part in any official ceremonies which could be seen to endorse Mugabe. Lamb re-iterated the ECB would face heavy fines if it broke contracts to play the match and said it was “bizarre and unfair” the British government had not offered to help with compensation.
Meanwhile, in Johannesburg World Cup organisers welcomed the decision by England to play in Zimbabwe. “We are happy to hear this news and we trust that this puts the matter to rest,” Jos Charle, spokesman for the World Cup organisers said.
The ECB decision appeared to guarantee the England-Zimbabwe match would go ahead unless the International Cricket Council (ICC) revisited its December decision that Zimbabwe was a safe venue for World Cup matches.
Six of the tournament’s 54 matches are due to take place in Zimbabwe, where food shortages have led to outbreaks of violence and fuelled opposition to Mugabe.
Charle said that a top-level committee including top ICC officials and the head of South Africa's United Cricket Board were monitoring security in Zimbabwe on a daily basis. “Their mandate is to continuously assess the situation in Zimbabwe,” Charle said. “As the situation stands at the moment, those matches will go ahead.”
The conference was delayed for almost two hours by protesters who barged past security officials, displaying placards saying “Bowl out killer Mugabe”, “No cricket while Zimbabwe burns”, and “Berlin 1936, Harare 2003”.
The group were led by British activist Peter Tatchell, who has twice tried to perform a citizen’s arrest on Mugabe.
“We are not going to sit idly by while people are starving,” Tatchell said, comparing the proposed trip to Britain’s competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics which Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler used to glorify his political beliefs.
The Australian goverment has also opposed the games in Zimbabwe but, like its British counterpart, has said it would not force its national team not to play.
A Lord’s official, discussing the earlier protest, said: “They just barged straight through.” He added punches were exchanged as the group pushed into the ground behind a television crew. The protesters were persuaded to leave by two police officers after 25 minutes.
Escorted outside the conference room, Tatchell complained he had been punched while another protester, Zimbabwean Alan Wilkinson, said a cut to his head had been caused by a security guard wielding a mobile phone.
Mugabe targets Aussies
In Lusaka, President Mugabe lashed out at Australia over the boycott threats, branding the people of the fellow former British colony as ex-criminals.
“Australia has criminal blood. There are criminals who were shipped to that place and settled there. It is not surprising they are speaking like that, that no one should step into Zimbabwe to play cricket,” Mugabe said.
Britain once used parts of Australia as a dumping ground for convicted criminals rather than keeping them in prison at home.
“There should be no racism in sport. They should not mix sports and politics,”Mugabe said.