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England relieved but cricket suffers

By Paul Kelso

SO England have “closure”. David Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), used the Americanism as the most divisive tour in a generation came to an end on

Sunday. That it should have ended with another facile victory simply emphasised the sporting irrelevance of a contest on which the English game was willing to stake its credibility.


“With the peaceful conclusion of these games we have brought closure to the Zimbabwe affair, something which is of huge importance to England’s standing within international cricket,” he said. “Had we not fulfilled these matches the Zimbabwe saga would have rolled on and on and been a painful running sore.”


Morgan can claim finality with confidence. England have an outstanding two-Test series to play here at some point, games deferred after the sacking of Heath Streak and 14 rebel players, but they will not be back for at least five years.


Australia are also due back, and Morgan confirmed that the ECB would not consider touring before they have fulfilled their commitment. He would not be drawn on a date but the Australians’ recently published five-year schedule does not feature Zimbabwe.


The sight of the ECB chairman alongside his counterpart at Zimbabwe Cricket, Peter Chingoka, and Ehsan Mani, president of the International Cricket Council (ICC), at Sunday night’s presentation ceremony underlined that this tour has always been primarily an exercise in diplomacy. Judged on the narrow terms by which he defined the affair, Morgan at least can look back on the past fortnight with some satisfaction.


With moral considerations discarded and financial imperatives the prime motor, he delivered on his promise to make the tour happen and gained credit within the ICC. Some of the damage wrought by the World Cup shambles has been repaired. To stick to those parameters is to ignore the full, grubby mess that this tour has effectively endorsed.


By looking no further than the well maintained cricket grounds, luxury hotels and decent restaurants within the reach of the moneyed, it was possible to see the past fortnight as little more than a sporting non-event, a curiosity in an apparently tranquil corner of Africa. But to do so is to ignore the reality of life in Zimbabwe, a country in which all institutions, whether civil, state or sporting, are entwined in the cloying machinations of President Robert Mugabe’s government.


Cricket has a rich tradition of politicisation. After Lord Harris, an MCC president, introduced the game while governor-general of India, the British saw it as a vehicle with which they could impose their values on the occupied. The game’s political force lies in its malleability, however, and as the grip of the empire receded it proved a powerful symbol of self-determination.


In the Caribbean the game became a source of regional identity and pride, whereas in the subcontinent it is the primary means by which India and Pakistan express their differences.


In Zimbabwe something similar might have happened organically but the transformation has been cynically imposed, and England’s presence has lent the process credibility. It was always impossible for the tour to remain free of politics.


Morgan claimed England’s visit was not intended to confer legitimacy on Mugabe, but as the president and his ruling party, Zanu PF, prepared for last week’s party congress with the introduction of further anti-democratic legislation, the BBC, Sky and the British press were reporting a cheery, incident-free one-day international attended by black and white within sight of the president’s Harare residence.


From the moment they arrived England tried to have it both ways, most obviously when Michael Vaughan intimated that his advice from his employers was that he should not shake the president’s hand if it were offered. The ECB has been willing to accept the upside of being here without taking responsibility for the consequences. Thankfully there were no major protests against the tour, action which on past evidence would have led to violent retribution against those responsible.


Paul Themba Nyathi, a member of the Movement for Democratic Change, said the party had decided not to target the matches. “There is a very real risk that people will come to severe harm if they protest,” he said.


“The government will have welcomed the opportunity these games give for the view that Zimbabwe is peaceful, that all is tranquil, but in fact what we have is the tranquillity of the graveyard.”


England players have been surprised at how peaceful the tour has been but Richard Bevan, their representative, said: “They’re not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I wouldn’t say the tour has been a success, because there has never been a win-win situation, but they have fulfilled their commitment professionally.”


The protesters may have stayed away but you barely had to scratch the surface to reveal discontent. On aeroplanes and in taxis, in bars, restaurants and cricket grounds, black and white have voiced unhappiness and opposition. Most spoke of a climate of fear, all were pessimistic for the future, and many would have swapped bread for not having the one-day cricket circus taking place in their midst.


“We live under a cynical regime intent on retaining power at all costs,” said Alfred, a manager active in the opposition. “The tour should not have happened, because nothing is normal here. We could protest, but once you have unfurled the banner the cameras and the journalists walk away. Who is there to see you arrested, to see you beaten, and in six weeks to see that you cannot walk?”


It is one of the paradoxes of the tour that, for all its political usefulness to the regime, there is open hostility to the England team’s presence within Zanu PF.


“Michael Vaughan’s statements are inherently racist and our people recognise this,” Joshua Mzamba, a member of the party’s central committee and a young man burning with ideological certainty, said at a reception last week. “By refusing to acknowledge the head of state he insults all Zimbabweans and implies that they are not fit to choose who should lead them. It is the typical attitude of the colonialist.”


Given Mugabe’s hostility to Britain — he has declared next year’s parliamentary election the anti-Blair election — perhaps it is no surprise that he and his ministers chose not to attend matches in which Zimbabwe were being so heavily defeated by an all-white England team.


For England the affair may be over, but in the country they leave behind the sport’s future remains uncertain. The young side led by Tatenda Taibu is hailed as the first truly representative Zimbabwe team, but by forcing out the white players the board has both weakened the side and undermined faith in its ability to govern in the best interests of the game.


The ICC has been a willing accomplice in this process, approving Zimbabwe’s request to resume Test matches against Bangladesh and South Africa next year with a side who have almost no first-class experience, let alone at the highest level. — The Guardian (UK).

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