London: Zimbabwe arrive in England on Thursday for a cricket tour in danger of featuring more drama off the pitch than on. Human rights activists have promised a string of protests against President Robert Mugabe’s government throughout the tour, while some British politicians have also spoken out against the visit.
That has shifted the focus firmly from cricket — Zimbabwe, ranked a lowly ninth out of 10 in the Test championship, will field a young and inexperienced side — to security issues.
England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) spokesman Mark Hodgson said on Wednesday: “We have been reading about what potentially may happen.
“We have been discussing security around international matches and the appropriate measures will be put into place.”
Human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who has made several attempts to have Mugabe arrested, has been quoted in the British media warning of protests at matches.
Zimbabwe are due to play two Tests against England before taking part in a tri-series involving South Africa.
Security at English cricket venues, which are unprotected by fencing, has been a major issue for several years.
Tatchell and a group of fellow protesters highlighted the point by forcing their way past Lord’s security guards during an anti-Mugabe protest before this year’s World Cup in southern Africa.
During the 1999 World Cup in England, players from several teams complained they were forced to run off at the end of matches because stewards were unable to stop crowd invasions. In 2001 during a tri-series between England, Australia and Pakistan, experimental plastic fencing and extra stewards were introduced.
But England conceded defeat against Pakistan rather than resume the game at Headingley after Pakistan fans, sensing victory, ran onto the square and ripped up the stumps. A steward was injured during the invasion.
Australia captain Steve Waugh also led his side off at Trent Bridge against Pakistan after a firecracker exploded near fast bowler Brett Lee, while Michael Bevan was struck in the face by a full beer can thrown from the crowd after Australia beat Pakistan in the final at Lord’s.
Spectators invading cricket pitches in England now face fines of up to £1,000 ($1,592).Before the World Cup earlier this year, the British government called on England to boycott their match in Zimbabwe as a protest against Mugabe.
England rejected those overtures, saying they were sportsmen and not politicians, but eventually forfeited the match over security concerns.
Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth last year after allegations that Mugabe had rigged his re-election as president.
Around half the country’s 14 million people are suffering food shortages, a crisis which Mugabe critics have blamed in part on his policy of redistributing white-owned farms to landless blacks.