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6 December 2004

NS special report – Cricket’s shame: the inside story

How did England's cricketers end up playing in Zimbabwe, where a tyrant rules and millions starve? D

By Des Wilson

In January this year Phil Edmonds, the outspoken former England spin-bowler, now chairman of Middlesex County Cricket Club, attended his first meeting of the England and Wales Cricket Board (the ECB). About the planned tour to Zimbabwe, he was uncompromising. It should be “cancelled forthwith”. The board was “obsessed with money”; it was time to make a moral stand. One board member, he said, “sounded like a Nazi”. It was gloriously over the top, but welcome to me, who was at that time one of few board members openly opposed to the tour. I looked forward to Edmonds’s support when the debate was renewed at the following meeting.

As I entered the gates of Lord’s for that next meeting, I saw Edmonds climbing into a car and disappearing at speed in the opposite direction. At the meeting, all was explained: Edmonds had discovered a business interest in Zimbabwe and was, therefore, withdrawing from the board until the Zimbabwe matter was resolved. I haven’t seen him since.

The ease with which he was despatched – or despatched himself – intensified my fear that the ECB was now hell-bent on repeating the debacle of England’s World Cup campaign a year earlier, when the players forced the board to cancel the Zimbabwe fixture after days of chaos and confusion.

Three factors contributed to that fiasco. First, ever since England kept trying to play South Africa in the apartheid era, English cricket had never moved from mindless adherence to the doctrine that “there’s no place for politics in sport”. Yet – and this is the second factor – the International Cricket Council (the ICC) is riven with politics, much of it motivated by dislike of England. Rather than being sympathetic to England’s difficulties over Zimbabwe, some countries could barely disguise their glee. Third, English cricket had become totally dependent upon its earnings from international cricket. Without that money, most of the 18 first-class counties would be bankrupt. Without a moral dimension to their thinking, those who ran English cricket allowed money to dictate every decision.

When I joined the board, I was asked to advise it on the “Zimbabwe problem” and to explore ways whereby the tour about to take place could be cancelled without paying too high a price, financial or diplomatic. I believed it could be – and still believe it could have – but it called for a principled stand by both the ECB and the Foreign Office. Alas, that was beyond them both.

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The strategy had two parts, one dependent on Jack Straw. While the ICC rules did not allow tours to be cancelled for “political or moral considerations”, it did allow force majeure. This meant a tour could be cancelled if the government issued a clear instruction to that effect. It was, therefore, vital that we received from the Foreign Secretary if not a firm instruction, at least powerful advice that could be interpreted as one.

Second, the ECB needed what it had lacked for more than 30 years: an intellectual and moral basis for taking decisions on controversial tours. The plan was to publish a “framework paper” and then a follow-up paper applying its principles to the Zimbabwe tour. This, we hoped, would win support from politicians, the public and the cricket world, and give the ECB the moral high ground. For that reason, we were keen to publish it before any Straw intervention so that we didn’t appear to be acting only because we were being forced to do the right thing.

The framework paper argued that “to seek to isolate sport as an activity that stands alone in human affairs, untouched by ‘politics’ or ‘moral considerations’ and unconcerned for the fate of those deprived of human rights, is as unrealistic as it is (self-destructively) self-serving . . .”

It identified five factors that could lead to abandonment of a tour: a threat to the safety and security of the players; impacts on the integrity of a tour (racism, or restrictions on freedom of expression); relationship with British foreign policy; the views of the cricket world; and moral considerations – in particular, whether the tour would give succour to a despotic dictator.

At every point in preparing the paper and the strategy, I worked closely with the two men who had involved me in the first place – David Morgan, the ECB chairman, and Tim Lamb, the then chief executive. Assuring me that they both believed a majority of board members were opposed to the tour, they not only contributed to and approved the framework paper, but also approved the date and the manner of its release.

So, with work on the paper under way, I approached Straw’s office. Since the UK had been instrumental in forcing Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth and had been pressing both the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to impose sanctions, we were optimistic, and were at first encouraged. We were “all on the same side”; the FO would do “all in its power to help”. While it would not actually instruct the ECB not to tour – Straw did not want to set a precedent and was afraid of having to pay financial compensation – it was sympathetic to an alternative idea: the ECB would ask for advice, and Straw would reply, offering the “strongest possible” advice not to go. We hoped we could convince the ICC that this was the nearest to an instruction you could achieve in a democracy.

Then I was shown a draft of Straw’s letter. Far from offering the “strongest possible” advice, it offered none at all. It simply spelled out what we all knew about the Mugabe regime and stated that the UK was taking “a leading role” in mobilising international pressure for change. All I could do was persuade the FO to add a sentence. Following the claim that the UK was “taking a leading role” internationally, it would say: “You may wish to consider whether a high-profile England cricket tour at this time is consistent with that approach.” This sentence was small consolation, for while the media could possibly be persuaded to read it as advising the ECB not to go, there was no chance the ICC would.

Straw was repeatedly pressed to take a stronger line, especially in answers to the Commons, but while he made his disapproval of the tour clear, he would not do so. When push came to shove, the Foreign Secretary was not going to help. He didn’t have the power, he said, to order sportsmen around, even when they were begging to be so ordered – this from a government that had no problem finding powers to invade Iraq.

This was not the limit of Straw’s betrayal. The plan called for careful timing, with publication of the letters in February. But in January Straw, under pressure from the shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram, found it politically expedient to publish the exchange early. What began as a plan to help the ECB was now to be used to help Straw. His office was indifferent to our protests. This led to the inevitable mistakes that accompany haste, including a bad one by me – the publication of the paper before all the board had had a chance to see it. This error played into the hands of the pro-tour element on the board, who were able to claim that they were being unfairly pressured. The result was a row about process, instead of a calm debate about the actual paper.

Under the same pressure, Morgan took the paper, prepared for an English audience, and personally delivered it to the ICC. Its members went ballistic. International pressure on the ECB included a letter from the Zimbabwe Cricket Union’s chairman to every county, with warnings of heavy financial penalties and other punitive action aimed at the English game. And Rod Bransgrove, a self-made multimillionaire and chairman of Hampshire County Cricket Club, raised the possibility that the ICC would remove that autumn’s lucrative Champions Trophy from England. This was of particular concern to Hampshire because its Rose Bowl ground was about to achieve international status, hosting trophy games. Bransgrove tried to isolate me within the board, circulating a memo accusing me of deliberately forcing the board into a corner. Then, at a dinner on the eve of a board meeting, he accused me of “doing the whole thing for personal publicity”. I said that if these charges were fair, I was unfit for office, and challenged him to move a vote of censure the following day. Instead, when the time came, he sat, silent, while a resolution was recorded accepting that I had acted in good faith.

Undeterred by further attacks by Bransgrove, I now tabled the follow-up paper, in the form of a letter to Morgan. It argued that the tour could only strengthen Robert Mugabe’s regime by allowing him to claim international respectability; that it would undermine UK foreign policy in the region; that it would be contrary to the wishes of the cricket world and deeply damaging to the game’s image in the UK; and that it was morally wrong to play cricket at an oasis within a country suffering such repression and hunger.

Alas, to Morgan and his first-class-county constituency, this was now all irrelevant. Morgan had by now abandoned the original strategy, partly under the influence of the Bransgrove element, but mainly because of the pressures from overseas.

Nevertheless he went to New Zealand, to an ICC meeting in Auckland, to make the force majeure case. The ICC now makes much of Morgan’s failure to argue the moral case there. Yet it was understandable: even I accepted that moral arguments were wasted on men without a moral bone in their bodies. The Straw letter, when added to letters from the other political parties and the position of the Commonwealth, was our only hope. But the ICC dismissed it out of hand.

The evening before the meeting, Morgan and Bob Merriman, chairman of Cricket Australia, and their wives had a jolly dinner together. Morgan found this encouraging. Yet the following day, it was Merriman who took up the attack, raising the stakes even further by proposing an additional penalty for abandoning a tour – suspension of the offending country from the international game.

Morgan was aghast; suspension could cost England tens of millions if enforced for just one season. And inevitably, when he reported back, the English game was panic-stricken. In vain, some argued that the ICC would never do it. Others said that it would never survive a legal challenge. But should Morgan and the ECB board be blamed for running scared? I don’t think so. A malign and morally bankrupt ICC, an organisation that could insist on ruling out moral considerations from the game’s deliberations and back that up with draconian measures, was capable of almost any injustice.

The ICC’s role in this affair has been unforgivable. England’s case should have been sympathetically listened to, its difficulties as the founder member of the cricketing family recognised, and some compromise – a postponement with financial compensation for Zimbabwe cricket – properly negotiated. The ICC leaders’ refusal even to consider moral issues is beyond belief – at least until you meet them. I still remember being introduced to the head of the West Indies Cricket Board in Barbados. “Ah,” he sneered, “so this is Mr Morality!” I told him he should look the word up in a dictionary; it could widen his horizons.

Morgan, who loves socialising at cricket’s top table, hated the atmosphere and hostility he experienced in Auckland. Now, with the board being told that it had to consider its fiduciary responsibilities, and the counties that put him in post worried about their share of Test match money, Morgan committed himself wholeheartedly to the tour (and has stuck rigidly to his guns ever since). Realising that I had lost the battle, and desperate to try to save the game from the fury I knew this would engender, I suggested a compromise to the management board: a tour under protest. “Let’s make clear we’ve been blackmailed into the tour by the threat of bankruptcy,” I argued. “Let’s place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the ICC, and then do the minimum necessary to meet our contractual obligations. Let’s publicly advise supporters not to travel. Let the team wear plain whites, no ECB logo. Let the team go out into the community and be pictured talking to the hungry and the oppressed.” But the will was not there. It was to be business as usual. So, less than a year after joining the board, I resigned. Contrary to Bransgrove’s claims about my hunger for publicity, I turned down more than 100 requests from radio and TV, doing one radio interview only.

Straw’s betrayal of our earlier endeavours was even now not complete. He and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, hosted a press conference to acknowledge that the ECB was in an impossible situation and he gave the tour his blessing. Then he sat benignly by while Morgan said the ECB accepted that it should not allow “moral considerations” to influence its decisions. When the team finally arrived in Harare, Morgan said: “Our business, our trade is cricket. If we want to trade in international cricket, then we have to do so by the rules of the ICC. It’s crystal clear that members of the ICC are not permitted to pull out of tours for political or moral reasons.”

Most readers will know what has happened over the past few days. Assuming that the tour is concluded without further disaster, it will be the ECB’s hope that memories will quickly fade. It will have “toughed it out”. But it has diminished the game. Let down by a weak foreign secretary, betrayed by the international cricket family, dominated by the financial vested interests of the first-class counties, it responded with cowardice and indifference to the fate of others or to the feelings and views of its fellow citizens. Morgan says he hopes the tour will heal a “running sore”. It won’t, because the sore of Zimbabwe is only the symptom of a deeper disease – a moral vacuum at the heart of the game – that will ultimately kill it unless eradicated.

How wise were the words of C L R James: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

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