Sports
England, Australia want Zimbabwe switch

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 4 (Reuters) - England’s cricket board officially requested the team’s World Cup match against Zimbabwe to be switched to South Africa on Tuesday because of mounting concerns over security in the strife-torn country.

After weeks of hesitating, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) finally backed their players by calling on the International Cricket Council (ICC) to move the February 13 game in Harare, threatening to throw the tournament into turmoil.

But the likelihood of Australia following suit receded later in the day following a meeting in Potchefstroom of their players and team officials with the Australian high commissioner to Zimbabwe.

Although Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had warned its nationals on Monday to steer clear of World Cup matches in Zimbabwe, the Australian players were convinced that the political situation was not serious enough to jeopardise their safety at the game scheduled for February 24 in Bulawayo.

The ECB had previously turned down British government requests to boycott the Harare match in protest at Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe — accused of rigging his re-election last year and triggering mass hunger by seizing white-owned farms — but changed its mind after the players expressed safety concerns.

The ECB said in a statement that it would "be making a submission to the ICC World Cup technical committee to request that England’s match in Harare on February 13th be moved to South Africa for safety and security reasons".

Captain Nasser Hussain and coach Duncan Fletcher backed the decision, the statement added.

New Zealand have refused to play a Group B match in Kenya on February 21 on safety grounds.

England’s request, prompted by social and political unrest in Zimbabwe, could be considered as early as Thursday by the six-man World Cup technical committee.

ICC DECISION

ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed said in a statement: "Prior to this request from the ECB, no country has sought a review of the ICC decision to stage games in Zimbabwe."

Should it be rejected, England would forfeit the match, a move which would leave them with only a slim chance of reaching the next round.

Hussain said he hoped England could avoid losing points.

"There are a lot of legal people going into these meetings, nothing is definite at all," he told a news conference.

"This has nothing to do with the credibility of the tournament, this has to do with the safety situation in Zimbabwe and doing the right thing about that game of cricket," Hussain said.

The governments of Britain and Australia have both urged their teams to boycott Zimbabwe.

The two countries have led a campaign for sanctions against Mugabe in a row that has split the Commonwealth on roughly racial lines. India and Pakistan say they are happy to go to Zimbabwe.

Critics say playing the matches would legitimise Mugabe’s rule at a time when half of Zimbabwe’s 14 million people face food shortages and the main opposition leader facing a possible death sentence if convicted of trying to kill Mugabe.

Television channels in South Africa showed footage of Zimbabwean police shoving observers, including diplomats and journalists, outside the trial at a Harare court on Monday, giving ammunition to opponents of World Cup matches.

SIGNIFICANT COMPENSATION

Tournament organisers and the ICC, the sport’s world governing body, have maintained so far that it is safe to play in Zimbabwe and Kenya, warning that teams boycotting matches will face calls for significant compensation from sponsors.

The stand by England and New Zealand, however, has been undermined by India and Pakistan’s readiness to travel to Zimbabwe, while Sri Lanka are also happy to play in Kenya.

The England players had last week asked for the game against Zimbabwe to be moved but the ECB at that stage supported the World Cup organisers’ stance that Harare was safe.

Australian Cricket Board chief executive James Sutherland, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting with the high commissioner, said he was trying to ensure that Australia’s players had as much information in front of them before going to Zimbabwe.

"We are committed to working through a process with our players and making sure they have all the information in respect to safety and security," he said.

"At this stage, we are committed to playing in Zimbabwe."

After a second security inspection of Zimbabwe, the ICC reiterated last week the country was safe to stage matches.

Australia forfeited a 1996 World Cup match in Colombo on government advice after a bombing in the Sri Lankan capital caused around 80 deaths.

They also withdrew from a two-test tour of Zimbabwe in March last year after the Australian government warned its citizens not to travel.


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