Activists threaten to dig up Zimbabwe pitches

NEIL MANTHORP & HUW TURBERVILL

AS England's cricketers face increasing pressure to take a moral stand by boycotting their opening match of the World Cup in Zimbabwe on February 13, a protest group is threatening to dig up the pitches in Harare and Bulawayo.

A human-rights group called Zimactivism have been phoning Zimbabwe players, urging them to pull out of the tournament in protest at President Robert Mugabe's regime. A senior player told The Sunday Telegraph that threats have been made to "dig up the cricket fields to plant maize for starving people'', while other callers said they would "cut holes in the covers'' at the World Cup venues in Bulawayo and Harare.

The International Cricket Council announced recently that November's fact-finding trip to Zimbabwe had assured them that there would be no danger to players and officials, and that the six matches — three in Harare, against Namibia, England and India, and three in Bulawayo, against Australia, Holland and Pakistan — would proceed as planned. They did admit, however, that there were contingency plans to switch the games to South Africa, the main hosts, if violence escalated.

Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead and former welfare reform minister, is calling on England's players to refuse to go and has formed an all-party group of MPs to protest against the Zimbabwean regime. He said: "The players can no longer say it is just a game of cricket — the policy of genocide under Robert Mugabe is totally unacceptable, and I hope players from all sides stand up and say they don't want to go there".

"The ECB and ICC have become so blinded by this notion that they are not bound to make political judgements, but it is obvious Mugabe will milk the World Cup for all it is worth to take attention off his murderous policies. It will be surprising if some of the players don't speak out, and then I hope the dyke will crumble."

Other members of Field's group include Lord Renwick of Clifton, a Labour peer and a former diplomat who was the adviser to the Governor of Rhodesia in 1980, and Lord Biffen, a former Cabinet minister in the Thatcher Government.

Former England player Gladstone Small, who now works for the Professional Cricketers' Association, said Nasser Hussain and his team should stand up and be counted. He said: "Sometimes we need to look at the wider issues and not hide behind the excuse that politics shouldn't get in the way of sport. The cricket authorities have made their decision — it now comes down to individual players.''

Hussain said it was not his role to question the ECB's decision. He said: "I'm a paid employee of the ECB and if they tell me this is where the World Cup is going to be and it's safe and morally right to go, then I can only do what my bosses tell me.''

ECB chief executive Tim Lamb, when asked what would happen if players asked to miss the Zimbabwe match, said: "That is hypothetical, but we are in close contact with Richard Bevan, the players' representative, and we remain confident that as long as the players understand the reasons why security and safety can be the only criteria for the ICC and ECB in making this decision, then we can be confident that they will fulfil their contractual obligations."

"If a player does have any reservations, I would like to sit down and talk to him on a one-on-one basis about why we do not think it is appropriate for us to make political judgments about various regimes around the world.

"An additional factor is that if we did not play the match, we would lose the points, and that is quite a telling factor from a cricketer's point of view.''

The Zimbabwe squad are still saying publicly that they want the matches to proceed. Security chief Dan Stannard said: "A few people sent e-mails out urging a boycott during the Pakistan tour in November but that was it. Feelings run deep, obviously, but the cricket will not be affected. It is as safe here now as it ever has been.''

Commenting on speculation that Australia were planning to arrive and depart on the same day for their match against Zimbabwe, Stannard said: "That is a load of rubbish. If they're going to come then come and enjoy it. Australia are the best team in the world, why not meet the people and be ambassadors for their country? If their politicians have decided there is no threat then they should do the job properly.''

The fear of speaking about politics is paralysing Zimbabwe's sportsmen and women. One cricketer, who did not wish to be named, said: "It's not a question of condoning what is happening, it's just a question of whether we want cricket to die or survive. I'm sorry if that is too simplistic for some people, but that is obviously the way cricket sees the situation.''

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2002