Let's show some balls on Zimbabwe

01:28, Dec 15 2009

The Beehive's greatest rugby league fan, Helen Clark reckons the New Zealand team should cancel their tour of Zimbabwe in July 2009. The PM said: "Obviously we would prefer the Black Caps not play in Zimbabwe...we'd be encouraging New Zealand Cricket to see if there was now potential to take the matter further."

Nice idea, but who exactly does she think should can the tour? Should the New Zealand players simply not turn up? Or should NZC overlook the tour and pretend they didn't see it in their diary, aka the International Cricket Council's Future Tours Program (the FTP)? Take your pick, but pointing to either of these two cricket groups is a complete and utter cop-out.

Expressing a preference or sending down a bit of encouragement to Cricket HQ in Christchurch is not exactly coming down like a Lance Cairns Excalibur is it? In order for the New Zealand team not to tour, there needs to be directives that are much more concrete emanating from the Government.

By way of comparison, it is clear that the position adopted by New Zealand's political leaders is considerably limper than that taken by their counterparts in both Britain and Australia in recent times.

Last month the British Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, wrote to the ECB (read the letter here) and said the British Government had decided that it "would not be right" to allow the Zimbabwe Cricket to England in 2009 to go ahead.

The Beehive's greatest rugby league fan, Helen Clark reckons the New Zealand team should cancel their tour of Zimbabwe in July 2009. The PM said: "Obviously we would prefer the Black Caps not play in Zimbabwe...we'd be encouraging New Zealand Cricket to see if there was now potential to take the matter further."

Nice idea, but who exactly does she think should can the tour? Should the New Zealand players simply not turn up? Or should NZC overlook the tour and pretend they didn't see it in their diary, aka the International Cricket Council's Future Tours Program (the FTP)? Take your pick, but pointing to either of these two cricket groups is a complete and utter cop-out.

Expressing a preference or sending down a bit of encouragement to Cricket HQ in Christchurch is not exactly coming down like a Lance Cairns Excalibur is it? In order for the New Zealand team not to tour, there needs to be directives that are much more concrete emanating from the Government.

By way of comparison, it is clear that the position adopted by New Zealand's political leaders is considerably limper than that taken by their counterparts in both Britain and Australia in recent times.

Last month the British Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, wrote to the ECB (read the letter here) and said the British Government had decided that it "would not be right" to allow the Zimbabwe Cricket to England in 2009 to go ahead.

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Mr Burnham explained that calling on the ICC to act had proved ineffective. "The Government has previously called on the ICC to reconsider its rules to allow teams to forfeit tours to countries, such as Zimbabwe, where serious human rights abuses are occurring. Unfortunately the ICC has declined to do so. Therefore, the Government has decided to make it clear that it will take all necessary steps to prevent players from Zimbabwe from participating in that tour."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also waded in and fired a few shots to cow corner, telling Parliament: "We want to ensure that Zimbabwe does not tour England next year and we will call for other countries to join us in banning Zimbabwe from the Twenty20 international tournament."

And in May 2007, Australia’s government stepped up to the plate and officially - and unequivocally - barred the national cricket team from fulfilling their Zimbabwe tour slated for September 2007. Then Prime Minister John Howard, a self-confessed cricket tragic, said his foreign minister wrote to Cricket Australia and instructed the tour be canned.

He said: "We don’t do this lightly, but we are convinced that for the tour to go ahead there would be an enormous propaganda boost for the Mugabe regime... I have no doubt that if this tour goes ahead it would be an enormous boost to this grubby dictator and whilst it pains me both as a cricket lover and as somebody who genuinely believes these things should be left to sporting organisations...it leaves me with no alternative.

"I don’t think it’s fair to leave a foreign policy decision of this magnitude on the shoulders of young sportsmen. I hope the rest of the cricketing world understands that and it would be a very good idea if the rest of the cricket world adopted the same attitude towards Mugabe’s regime. I’m not going to stand around and allow some kind of aid and comfort be given to him [Mugabe] by the greatest cricketing team in the world visiting his country." 

The Australian government also offered to reimburse Cricket Australia for any losses under its agreement with the ICC and Zimbabwe Cricket for not proceeding with the tour. (More on Howard's brave call here.)

At a practical level, the New Zealand players and administrators are torn between their contractual obligations to the international game on one side, and the dilemma of heading off to a country to frolic about on cricket fields with political and moral turmoil erupting all around.

NZC has obligations to tour Zimbabwe as it is bound by the FTP and its associated revenue which is the lifeblood of cricket in New Zealand. In simple terms, the only way a tour can be axed is because of genuine concerns around security and safety of players, or because a country has forbidden its cricketers from touring.

If NZC decide to bite the hand that feeds and pull the pin on the tour for an unacceptable reason along the lines of: "Sorry chaps, we find Zimbabwe a morally reprehensible place to play", they will be staring down the barrel at an initial fine of US$2m from the ICC. Then there will be a killer blow: an obligation to pay Zimbabwe Cricket millions more as reimbursement for any losses incurred as a result of our no-show. If you sucked US$10m out of NZC, that would cripple the organisation and the sport of cricket in New Zealand. Hardly a practical option.

On the other hand, the players are contracted to NZ Cricket and must make themselves available for each and every tour - as much as some of them would like, they cannot pick and choose. Even if there were some allowances made for players who wanted to opt out on moral grounds, a New Zealand team of some description would still be obliged to front up in Harare.

If the government followed the lead of Britain and Australia and banned the tour, the ICC would regard the matter as outside the control of NZC. As Heath Mills from the NZ Cricket Players Association said to the NZ Herald: "If the NZ Government wanted to come out and say: 'Well, listen, we don't want any sporting ties with Zimbabwe cricket', then NZC would have to follow that and they would report that to the ICC and we wouldn't be required to honour that obligation." Game over. 

Alternatively, the government could put its money where its mouth is at present, and agree to reimburse NZC for any fines it incurs in not touring. That could work, but imagine the dreadful PR involved as the NZ government writes out a multimillion dollar cheque payable to Mugabe's cronies in and around Zimbabwe Cricket.

It is ridiculous to expect sporting organisations to make political decisions. If the ICC vote later this week to suspend or expel Zimbabwe, the decision will be taken away from NZC and the players, and also out of the hands of the government. A potentially utopian result - perhaps this is what we are waiting for politically? But when was the last time the ICC made a brave decision - and got it right? Let's not raise our hopes too high.

The New Zealand team should not go - but this decision must be taken at a national level. When the ICC play deaf, dumb and blind to the crisis in Zimbabwe this week, the government must show some balls, and make this call.