The Cricket World Cup is still six weeks away, but it has already managed to split the cricket world along color lines. For the first time in the tournament’s history, the sport’s most prestigious event, a 14-team competition, will be held in Africa, with South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya as co-hosts, but in the last two weeks, the British, Australian, and New Zealand governments have called on their national teams to boycott the event unless the International Cricket Council, the event organizer, finds a new venue for the six games currently scheduled to be played in Zimbabwe. India and Pakistan have said they will play there, and the cricketing authorities in South Africa, where the bulk of the games will take place, have encouraged the ICC to stick with the schedule.
In London, an op-ed in the Times said the government should have provided clear, decisive leadership rather than wishy-washy recommendations. The decision to request rather than order the England team to stay away from Zimbabwe left the players “stranded in mid-wicket. Should they go, they face the prospect of being invited to shake the evil hand of President Robert Mugabe. Should they decline to set foot in Zimbabwe, the consequences could ruin individual careers and cost the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) millions of pounds.” The Independent agreed that the prime minister should’ve spoken out earlier, but the editorial came out squarely on the side of a boycott:
The real issue is this: anyone committed to democracy and human rights should refuse to confer legitimacy on Robert Mugabe’s odious regime in Zimbabwe. He is a tyrant who has ruined his country, starved his people and stolen an election. In the endless debate between engagement and isolation, the Cricket World Cup is an easy call: don’t go. Dictators crave international respectability and this competition will give it to this dictator. A boycott, on the other hand, would draw attention to his pariah status.
The Guardian said the players and the cricket authorities should be capable of taking the decision to stay away from Harare and Bulawayo: “[I]t is unthinkable that something as essentially hedonistic as a sumptuous sporting event, with all the attendant hospitality and media coverage, should continue to take place in a police state whose people are starving.”
Several papers responded to the “cricketers’ argument” that they should not be called upon to sacrifice their participation in the World Cup when hundreds of British companies do business in Zimbabwe. The Daily Telegraph offered two explanations: “First, cricket is a national symbol. It cannot segregate itself as a pastime of no importance to anyone except those who play cricket.” Second, “cricket should have regard for its own good name. … There are people dying of hunger created by Mugabe’s inhuman policies. Is cricket really to ignore this, and pretend it isn’t happening?”
A Telegraph op-ed by David Coltart, a Zimbabwean opposition MP and “passionate supporter” of cricket, “agonized” over both sides of the issue. The presence of hundreds of journalists—”albeit cricket reporters” might prevent human rights violations, if only for a short time, and “[i]f no matches take place, there will be no further reason for the regime to behave better.” Furthermore, if a boycott was only supported by “white” nations (a somewhat ridiculous concept since most teams are multiracial), “it will be a godsend to Mr Mugabe, who will proclaim it as further proof that his is a just battle against racists who are concerned only about the plight of white farmers.” Still, in the end, Coltart recommended that the ICC move the matches to South Africa unless it receives assurances that the Mugabe administration could gain no political advantage from hosting.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard appealed to the ICC not to use Zimbabwean venues: “You have a completely illegitimate, undemocratic, stolen government in Zimbabwe.” The Sydney Morning Herald concluded that Howard had “failed to make a convincing case: he has failed to identify precisely the boycott’s objectives and to explain how the cancellation of a few cricket matches would achieve those objectives. … The sceptical are left to wonder if the Australian Government is not merely hoping to make some gesture internationally, but without taking the hard decision itself to ban the tour.”
An op-ed in Pakistan’s Dawn pooh-poohed the British and Australian government’s attitudes as “sanctimonious humbug. It is a high-minded way to effect a regime change in Zimbabwe; in Iraq, through military means, in Zimbabwe through cricket.” In Africa, the Zimbabwean minister of information and publicity dismissed the possible boycott: “If the British and the Australians want to keep cricket as a white and colonial sport, then they should do so alone because we are not interested in their rubbish.” A former member of the Zimbabwean team writing in South Africa’s Sunday Times stated, rather unconvincingly, “Maybe if the World Cup doesn’t take place, it will accelerate change. Maybe. But I just think of the cricketers and the fans, and I know that having the World Cup in Zimbabwe will be a ray of hope in an otherwise pretty dark situation.” The Sowetan supported the boycott. Its editorial thundered: “The exclusion of Zimbabwe as a World Cup venue is intended as a moral statement, emphasising our collective outrage over Mugabe’s disregard for democratic norms. … By ensuring Zimbabwe is left out of the international loop, the world would signal its utter disdain for Mugabe’s unwillingness to reform and restore his country to a constitutional democracy.”