LONDON, May 7 - England's controversial autumn cricket tour to Zimbabwe was on Thursday looking ever more likely to go ahead after the government reiterated that it would not instruct the England and Wales Cricket Board to boycott the country.
However, the composition of the eventual tour party may have a very unfamiliar look after David Morgan, the ECB chairman, used a press conference with ministers to make clear that no player would be forced to tour "if he does not wish to do so as a matter of personal conscience".
With a boycott by 15 experienced players currently forcing Zimbabwe to field a makeshift side in its Test series against Sri Lanka, Morgan's words raise the spectre of a potentially farcical series featuring vastly under-strength teams.
Meanwhile in the Commons, the war of words between the government and the International Cricket Council, world cricket's governing body, continued, with leader of the House Peter Hain bracketing the ICC with Robert Mugabe as "the villain of the piece".
Hain, who once played a leading role in a campaign to halt UK tours by apartheid South African teams, said: "Undoubtedly the villain of the piece at the present time is not just Robert Mugabe's despotic regime, but the way in which the International Cricket Council is turning a blind eye to that and I find that unacceptable."
Jack Straw, foreign secretary, appeared to dash any residual hope of the government hardening its stance enough to enable the ECB to pull out of the tour without penalty when he told Thursday's news conference: "The British government has no such power to instruct people not to leave the country to play sport."
He and Tessa Jowell, culture secretary, did at least express sympathy for the ECB. Jowell said: "The ECB is between a rock and a hard place . . . But government can't solve that problem for them by issuing diktats."
"They now have a very tough decision to take, weighing the feelings of so many that the tour should be postponed with the long-term damage that postponement could do to the game."
Morgan acknowledged that touring Zimbabwe in the current political climate would be "unacceptable to the majority of the British public", but said refusing to tour would produce "the real threat of very severe sanctions which could have a devastating impact on the well-being of our game".
In March, the ICC's executive board agreed that touring teams failing to fulfill obligations could face suspension, a potential penalty that has run as much as £50m.
The ECB may now make up its mind what to do at a board meeting on June 8.
By David Owen
Source: FT news
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