Wednesday Column
Political issues have overshadowed cricket

 by Rex Clementine
 An English journalist working for the "The Guardian" had come down to Bloemfontein to report the Sri Lanka-New Zealand clash at the Goodyear Park. But he seemed to be not interested in the match and his mind was somewhere else. Not that the game didn't provide any entertainment. There was plenty. First by Sanath Jayasuriya, and then by a relatively unknown Scott Styris, who made his maiden ODI hundred. But the issue of the English cricket team at the moment, whether they go to Zimbabwe or not, had become so paramount, he was seen busy with his mobile phone asking from his associates and the higher-ups of English cricket as to what the progress is.

 Only a couple of games have been played in the World Cup so far, but there's been enough happening. Brian Lara slammed a hundred on his return to international cricket after falling ill in September and on Monday there were two more hundreds from Sanath Jayasuriya and Scott Styris. And how about Lance Klusener's onslaught of the West Indies. But none of them have stolen the headlines as they should have and the focus is on what the cricket officials say and do with regard to Zimbabwe and Kenya.

 The latest threat comes from the South African cricket chief Percy Sonn. In a television interview yesterday Sonn said that South Africa might even boycott a five match Test series in England next summer if England will not fulfill their commitments. That's a major threat and with England right now having only the support of the New Zealand and the Australian cricket boards at ICC's  level could think differently.

 In order to get away from the public criticism, now the English are heared saying that what they want is not a boycott of Zimbabwe, but a change of venue for the game against Zimbabwe for their own safety. It's glad to see that the ICC, which functioned according to the whims and fancies of England not long ago, putting their foot down and taking a firm stand. Although the two leading men of ICC, Malcolm Grey the President and Malcolm Speed the CEO are from Australia, they've acted boldly not giving into pressure.

 Boycotting Zimbabwe is only going to backfire England. Predictions in cricket can be proved wrong very soon, but it's crystal clear if the English don't go to Zimbabwe, they'll make an early exit in the World Cup. They are in a tough group and this English side of bits and pieces of cricketers doesn't have the ability to compete against teams like Australia, Pakistan and India. Hope you remember the way they played the Ashes. Probably even if they go to Zimbabwe and win against the Zimbabweans, still they'll struggle to make it to the Super Sixes.

 And right now we hear some different stories from the Australian and New Zealand camps, the others who are concerned with security. The New Zealanders next two games are against West Indies and South Africa, two tough teams and depending on the results of those games, if they still have a slight chance in getting through to the Super Sixes, the calculators will be out and if the need arises they could be still playing in Nairobi.

 As for the Aussies, who have agreed to go to Harare to honour their fixture against Zimbabwe, they might act other way around. They might re-consider their decision to go to Harare and would probably boycott the game. Their first game was against Pakistan yesterday and the second will be against India and there'll be another game against Holland before the Harare match, if the games against India and Pakistan are won, Australia might keep away from Mugabe's land.

 Talking about Mugabe, two leading Zimbabwean cricketers, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga played the game against Namibia, the day before, with black armbands on. Both the players came out with strong statements saying democracy that dies off in Zimbabwe should be restored and the millions of Zimbabweans who are starved should be looked after. It's good to see at least a couple of players have the guts to speak for their people.

 The other country that has been severely affected due to these security concerns is Pakistan. All their home matches in  recent times have been played away from home. Sri Lanka could have acted better when there was an offer to go and play five One-Day games to improve the image of the country's security situation. But they didn't Glad that they went at least for the finals of the Asian Test Championship.

 Don't forget that Sri Lanka suffered the same fate not long ago. No international cricket team toured the country during the 1987-1992 period and the cricket in the country was starved and a lot of players weren't able to show their true potential to the world. In more recent times, teams have refused to come down to Sri Lanka for security reasons and some sides have done intensive studies on the security situation of the island  before sending their teams. At times there have been unreasonable demands too. Mostly these have come from England, Australia and New Zealand and at certain times, West Indies too have been a part to it.

 Probably Sri Lanka suffered the most due to these security concerns and some of them have been really baseless. The security concerns were there even during the Champions Trophy Tournament. While some of the nations did extensive study of the situation in Sri Lanka two New Zealand crickceters even refused to tour the country.

 Thankfully the situation has changed today. International Cricket Officials and players saw Sri Lanka as a nation where violence was rampant, but today the image has changed and the country is looked as a place where you can play even neutral matches. And for the first time, we hear Steve Waugh in his press conferences speaking about the quality of some Sri Lankan pitches rather than the bombs, suicides and security.