The implications of cricket in Zimbabwe

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New World Cricket Watch correspondent Rafiq Copeland delves into the political implications of an improving Zimbabwean team.

If you have been reading mainly cricket related news of late you might be excused for thinking the situation in Zimbabwe is looking pretty rosy. Not only have Zimbabwe just hosted a triangular one day series against Sri Lanka and India, but they have performed strongly, beating India twice and making the final. Team success was matched by strong individual performances. More importantly than this Zimbabwe’s much maligned cricket administration is apparently improving out of sight. The racist selection policies are seemingly a thing of the past. Former players with legitimate grievances against ZC seem to have come back to the fold. Player payments are no longer the pittance that they once were. And all of these improvements seem to be yielding results on the pitch.

Tragically the news being reported on the sports pages is not a perfect reflection of the wider situation in Zimbabwe. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently underscored the ongoing seriousness of the situation when she announced that the US would continue sanctions against the Mugabe regime and accused a ‘ruling clique’ in the Zanu PF party of profiteering and corruption. While Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change may be officially part of a power sharing government, the people who brought the country to its knees are still there. Much the same can be said of Zimbabwe Cricket.

Peter Chingoka and Ozias Bvute are currently both the subject of active EU sanctions and travel bans as a result of allegations of corruption and ties to the Mugabe regime and Zanu PF. Both have been banned from entering Australia. However, both retain key roles in Zimbabwe Cricket administration. Others with similarly shaky backgrounds also remain in important positions. While it is undoubtedly exciting to see new talent evolve, it is hard to ignore worries of contamination as long as the old guard continue to cast their shadow.

Zimbabwe Cricket’s significant but limited administrative progress has been highlighted in the media recently by another story unrelated to on field success – the furor over John Howard’s succession to the ICC vice presidency. Howard’s tough stance on Zimbabwe during his time as Australian Prime Minister (and first-cricket tragic) has been cited as a stumbling block to his assuming the ICC role.  Famously Howard was against sporting sanctions being placed on apartheid-era South Africa, but changed his stance when faced with Zimbabwe’s turmoil. Given that the same people are largely in power in Zimbabwe now as then, the issue of sanctions must surely still apply.

The question that must be tackled is whether allowing a corrupt and despotic government and cricket administration to compete in the international arena is going to encourage reform, or reinforce the status quo. The argument that this question need not be asked, that sport is somehow beyond politics, is a position which cannot be defended. Given the popular sentiment and given the money that is involved in contemporary sport, it is impossible to argue that sport does not play a role in political power and legitimacy. The ICC and the international cricket community must take this role seriously.

Interestingly, although it has attracted the most attention, Zimbabwe is not the only country to present similar problems to the cricketing world. Recent events in Sri Lanka and Pakistan have also drawn condemnation from some circles. Afghanistan is another interesting case. In their own more humble way the fledgling Afghan national team – many of whom learnt the game in refugee camps across the Pakistani border – are making are making a splash on the international stage. Given the Afghan government is in the process of making peaceful overtures to the Taliban, should the ICC be considering Afghanistan’s position? The answer is probably not. North Korea’s presence in the FIFA World Cup is proof enough that cricket is not the only sport facing these particular challenges.

At this stage, while Zimbabwe does appear to be making progress, it seems that they should be allowed to compete in the international arena, and even encouraged to return to test status. But it must be clear that their position is based on sustained and substantive development in political and administrative transparency as well as continued improvement on the cricket pitch. Simply ignoring what happens off the pitch in Zimbabwe is not an option.

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