England have been warned that their World Cup prospects will suffer if they fail to fulfil their opening fixture against Zimbabwe in Harare on February 13.
Critics have deplored plans for England to compete in President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – a country racked by political violence and murder with seven million people facing starvation.
Downing Street and the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last night weighed into the row just hours after Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, demanded that England refuse to play the scheduled match.
Even England chairman of selectors David Graveney has stated that he would refuse to go if he was asked to play in Zimbabwe.
However, International Cricket Council chief executive Malcolm Speed insists his board are standing by their decision to go ahead with matches in Harare and Bulawayo and that any team boycotting those fixtures will be punished.
He told Sky Sports: “If that occurs, and we’ve talked to the ECB about this, the decision is that if England doesn’t play because of political considerations, they will not receive any points from that match, in effect they will forfeit that match.
“If the situation deteriorated and it was unsafe for England to play, the points will be shared. If it’s a political decision, however, they will forfeit the points.
“All of the countries due to play in Zimbabwe were represented in the delegation that went to Zimbabwe and so each of those countries, including England, have signed a document on the safety aspect of it.
“I don’t see it so much as a moral dilemma. A decision has been taken by the ICC board that the only factor to take into account is safety. We’ve done that, we’ve assessed the situation in Zimbabwe with regards safety and we’ve resolved to move forward.
“There have been a number of comments from members of the British government. What we’ve said consistently is that it’s up to the politicians to make political decisions, we make our decisions based on sporting factors and we’ve done that.
“We’ve made our decision and the ECB have said, that from England’s perspective, they will abide by that decision, so hopefully we can move forward.”
Speed admits that the current political crisis in Zimbabwe has been discussed but reiterated his board’s desire to push on with the World Cup as planned.
“That’s an issue but we can only make our decision based on cricketing considerations and sporting considerations,” he added. “We have 84 member countries that come under all sorts of political regimes.
“It will be a good tournament for Zimbabwean cricket. As one of the 10 full-member countries of the ICC they’ve earned the right to host these matches and there are a lot of dedicated cricket supporters and cricket administrators who want these matches to go ahead.
“We actually think that cricket will bring some pleasure to a lot of people in Zimbabwe in difficult times.
“We’re aware of the political difficulties, we’re aware of the economic difficulties, but they’re factors that we don’t take into account.”
Mugabe’s nation is at loggerheads with Britain over unfair elections and the displacement and murder of white farmers while its population faces starvation.
A spokesman for Number 10 last night said: “We have no power to order a team not to go. It is up to them but our advice is that they should not go.”
Ms Short went further, branding the decision as, “deplorable and shocking”.
“An election has been stolen and people are being starved because they dared to vote freely,” she said.
“I think they should not go. It is like pretending everything is OK in Zimbabwe and it is not.”
England captain Nasser Hussain believes such political matters are too complex for cricketers themselves to adjudicate on.
However, he has admitted he would have no problems with pulling out of the tie even if it meant England forfeiting the match and the World Cup points.
Writing in his column in The Sunday Telegraph, Hussain comments: “Robert Mugabe is a major world leader. A few years ago I was a lad playing cricket for Ilford 2nd XI, and now I’m expected to make a political judgement on whether or not I should lead the England team to Zimbabwe and perhaps shake the Zimbabwe president by the hand.
“It must be right that the decision is made at a higher level than sport, by a government body.
“Even if it means that England will forfeit points by not playing in Zimbabwe, that would be willingly done if the Government believes it right that England should not play.
“Cricket, and qualifying for the Super Six stage of the World Cup, comes a long way down the list of what is important, especially compared with people starving.
“Such a government body was needed last winter, it is needed now and it will be needed again as there are sure to be similar situations which come up in future.”