Monday, August 22, 2005

Racist Butcher XI


It's rare that a news event occurs to combine two of my great loves: cricket and international politics. However, such a luxury has arrived in the form of the British government's call for Zimbabwe to be banned from international cricket. Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell have written to the ICC (International Cricket Council) calling for a ban on international fixtures, as a response to Mugabe's slum clearance programme.

This isn't a new issue, of course. England toured Zimbabwe last winter, as a warm-up to their (successful, if we don't count the one-day matches) tour of South Africa. England didn't want to tour - at least two players (notably Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison) refused to join the party. Darren Gough, who did go, said he wouldn't shake Mugabe's hand if the opportunity were presented (it was not). Oddly enough, Mugabe's hand has been shaken by Jack Straw, on a UN trip last September. Straw even said, "nice to meet you". He forgot to add, "you bloody murdering, corrupt, evil bigoted pig", but I'm sure those words must have been on the tip of his tongue.

One has to feel sorry for the Zimbabwean national team, which certainly contains some talented players like Tatenda Taibu, Heath Streak and Andy Blignaut. They must be burning to carry on playing international cricket, to continue on some very good starts (Streak already has 210 Test wickets and is ranked the 18th best bowler in the world) and be taken seriously as world-ranking players. But they're up against a situation not in their control. They're unfortunate enough to have been born in a country currently ruled by one of the world's most corrupt dictators (let's not pretend the 'elections' in Zimbabwe make it anything approaching a democracy).

A lot of people say sport and politics shouldn't mix. This is bullshit. Professional sport is an activity in which money is involved, and money is always political. In any case, why should we leave our morality at the changing-room door when we step onto the playing field? Mugabe has rigged elections; arrested and tortured political opponents; demolished homes in Harare and dumped the victims in rural villages, where there is already insufficient food; introduced draconian Public Order laws; famously stolen land from white farmers in an openly racist policy of land reform; imported millions of tonnes of maize because of his country's food shortage, yet denied that a problem exists; and withdrawn Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. Playing cricket in his country merely legitimises his regime, gives it a modicum of kudos on the world stage, sends signs to his opponents that they remain unsupported by the international community, and lends Mugabe ammunition to increase his air of self-importance.

But the above facts are well known, and have been for some years. Why didn't the British government act sooner? Why did they let the last tour go ahead, against the wishes of the England players and much public opinion both in Zimbabwe and in Britain? Straw claims that the British government would have been sued by Zimbabwe, had it banned the tour, and that the cost of fighting this action would have fallen on the British taxpayer. Well, I wish they'd asked us first, because I think that's one bill a lot of UK taxpayers would have been happy to foot (even assuming Mugabe had gone ahead and issued a writ*, which is by no means certain, although he would probably have enjoyed the opportunity to engage in a set-to with his long-standing colonial opponents - there are a lot of African leaders who would still support him on that one, and he knows it).

Anyway, the fact remains that the British government would rather flex its feeble spine by persuading the ICC to ban Zimbabwe, rather than going it alone and banning English tours itself. Actually, more accurately, the ICC is being asked to waive fines against countries who refuse to play Zimbabwe. However, the ICC has always defaulted to the "keep politics out of sport" mentality, so there seems little prospect of action when it meets in Dubai next week. Moreover, the ICC is keen to develop cricket in African countries (especially given Kenya's good showing the last World Cup**), so it may decide it does not want to send a message that it's suddenly going to start taking moral issues into account at this stage.

It seems likely that, with a governing council that is deaf to the ethical dimension of the sport, a British government more concerned with diplomatic niceties than human rights, and a Zimbabwean government ruled by a lunatic, we will be back in the same position whenever England are next invited to tour this poor, battered country.

* In fact, it would probably have been the ICC who would have issued the writ, or just fined England rather a lot of money. So Mugabe would have had limited opportunity to strut.

** Mind you, Kenyan cricket is having its own problems at the moment.

[UPDATE, 10 October 2005: England captain Michael Vaughan has told the Daily Mail that if the team had been asked to meet Mugabe, they would have pulled out of the tour.]


Post a Comment

<< Home