When the England v Zimbabwe Test series opens at Lord's next Thursday, the home team will face a Zimbabwe side that has been politically cleansed. Only players and officials uncritical of President Robert Mugabe were eligible for selection.
Andy Flower and Henry Olonga were forced out after their "death of democracy" black armband protest during the World Cup in February. Other critics have also been given the elbow, including the coach Kevin Curran and the trainer Malcolm Jarvis. The former Zimbabwe captain Alistair Campbell and the all-rounder Guy Whittal were recently pressured to quit. According to Campbell, the current Zimbabwe squad has been "politically vetted" by the government-controlled Sports Commission. The players, he says, are "yes-men" who are unlikely to protest.
And just in case any of them are tempted to mention human rights abuses in Zimbabwe or to criticise Mugabe while they are in Britain, they also have gagging orders written into their contracts. Any unauthorised public utterances may result in suspension without pay, dismissal from the squad or even a life ban.
The chair of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, Peter Chingoka, maintains that he runs an "apolitical" organisation, but that is simply not true. Not only is free speech curbed among his players but the union is, in effect, the sporting arm of Mugabe's regime. Most of its officials are members or supporters of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, and one former official says the links are so close the body should be renamed the Zanu-PF Cricket Union.
President Mugabe is the union's patron, and through his friends on the board he controls cricket in Zimbabwe. Nothing important can be decided without government approval, so that, for example, Mugabe's authority was required before the current tour could go ahead. Whether they like it or not, Zimbabwe's cricketers are sporting ambassadors for one of the world's worst tyrants. Mugabe desperately wants normal relations with the rest of the world, and he wants this tour to succeed because he sees normal sporting relations as a vital step in that direction.
But how can there be normal sporting relations with a regime that uses torture, rape and murder as weapons of political repression? In the past three years, 260 opponents of Mugabe's dictatorship have been murdered and 3,409 tortured, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum. Given these horrors, it verges on depravity for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to blithely insist on "sport as usual".
The Zimbabwe Cricket Union pursues a politically partisan agenda, not only by loyally re-electing Mugabe as its patron every year, but also by intimidating and silencing anyone who dares question his misrule. The scale of this intimidation has been revealed by Gwynne Jones, an ex-director of Zimbabwe's national cricket college, CFX Academy, who describes the Zimbabwe Cricket Union as Mugabe's "mouthpiece". When he challenged its policies, he received a visit from Mugabe's secret police, the CIO. Others who shared his concerns got similar visits, and sometimes Peter Chingoka turned up, too. After being read the riot act, the dissidents quickly dropped their opposition to the union's leadership.
At the Mashonaland Cricket Association's AGM last year, one member queried whether Mugabe should be reappointed as patron. A senior union official responded with a barely veiled threat: if people valued their health they would not ask such questions, he said. The subsequent vote was unanimous.
Despite abundant evidence of political bullying of this kind, and even though the visiting team has been purged of political dissenters, the ECB has not only agreed to play two Test matches against Zimbabwe, but has also signed commercial deals with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union. These include the promise of a return series in Harare next year and compensation for England's withdrawal from its World Cup fixture in Zimbabwe.
If the English cricket authorities are not putting money before morality (they claim they aren't), then perhaps they can answer two questions. Why is England playing cricket with a Zimbabwe squad whose members must pass a political loyalty test? And whatever happened to the sporting ideals of open selection and fair play?