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Sport - Cricket

Australia likely to cancel Zimbabwe tour

By Malcolm Conn

JOHANNESBURG, MARCH 25. Australia is on the verge of cancelling the tour of Zimbabwe for safety reasons, following advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. An announcement by the Australian Cricket Board in Melbourne is expected on Wednesday.

The Foreign Affairs department has made it clear that all Australians should avoid visiting Zimbabwe. ``Australians considering travel to Zimbabwe should defer all holiday and normal business travel to the country until further notice,'' the official advice said.

Violence and the risk of violence have increased in the wake of the presidential elections earlier this month, with opponents of President Mugabe being targeted for retribution. Thousands are on the run from government-supported militia and more than 100 homes of opposition MDU supporters are believed to have been burnt down.

``The widespread community perception that the elections were rigged has led to a volatile, tense political climate. General strikes are planned,'' the department said. ``The Zimbabwean government rhetoric that the opposition is supported by `foreigners' (Australians have been mentioned in this regard) contributes to the risk of Australians being caught up in violent incidents.' Prime Minister John Howard's high-profile role in Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth earlier this month adds to that perception. There are also growing concerns over increased farm-seizing in the country. ``The land reform programme, which has seen unlawful occupation of farms, looting of crops, theft of cattle and violent acts against farmers, their families and workers, is to be accelerated,'' the department said.

Just eight days ago, a farmer was killed. The department said there have been disturbances and violence in major cities. ``Incidents of mugging, car-jacking and pick-pocketing, particularly in urban centres and tourist areas, are on the increase,'' the department said.

Cancellation of the tour would be another nail in the coffin of Zimbabwean cricket, a white-dominated sport which will struggle to survive long term at international level unless circumstances in the country improve significantly. There is a possibility that the three one-day matches and two Tests, scheduled for later this month and early next month, may be played in South Africa.

However, that could cause problems at a government-to-government level between South Africa and Zimbabwe, with the perception that South Africa would be undermining its neighbour.

A spokesperson for the United Cricket Board of South Africa said there had been no formal request for South Africa to host the Zimbabwe-Australia series. Some informal discussions are believed to have taken place between officials. England wanted South Africa to host its five-match one-day series against Zimbabwe last October but the United Cricket Board was unable to help and it went ahead in Zimbabwe.

The national selectors — chairman Trevor Hohns, Allan Border, David Boon and Andrew Hilditch — were due to meet on Wednesday to select a Test squad for Zimbabwe. An announcement was expected on Thursday but that now appears unlikely.

There are strong International Cricket Council rules for tours and penalties can run to millions of dollars if Test nations fail to honour their commitments. Australia must play a series hosted by Zimbabwe, even if it is not in Zimbabwe, during the next few years to meet its obligations under the ICC's new five-year cycle, where every nation must play each other home- and-away in a series of atleast two Tests and three one-day games.

Pakistan recently hosted the West Indies in Sharjah after the West Indies refused to tour the sub-continent following the September 11 attack. New Zealand, which aborted a tour of Pakistan, is due to play a rescheduled series there next month.

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