Australia's decision will have serious repercussions

BLOEMFONTEIN MARCH 29. The crisis in Zimbabwe may ultimately cost Australia the successful defence of its World Cup title in South Africa next year. While most matches are due to be played in South Africa from early February, Australia is drawn to play Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe during the preliminary round.Given that Australia pulled out of a Test and one-day tour scheduled to begin next month, it is highly unlikely that the Aussies would tour there if the volatile political situation does not improve.

By forfeiting the match, Australia's chances of making the `super six' play-off round will become more difficult.

Australia has already created a precedent for this by refusing to play its first round match in Sri Lanka during the 1996 World Cup after a terrorist bombing in Colombo killed hundreds. In that tournament, the top eight teams figured in the quarterfinals, making it easier for the teams to progress than the current format. Australia made the final but lost to Sri Lanka.

South Africa's World Cup committee chairman, Ali Bacher, conceded that the teams might refuse to play in Zimbabwe the way Australia and the West Indies refused to play in Sri Lanka six years ago.

"We could be placed in a similar situation where a couple of countries who are scheduled to play in Zimbabwe at the moment, their governments may very well say `we don't want you to go to Zimbabwe.' That could happen,'' Bacher told The Australian.

"I think, ultimately, the decision will be out of the cricket administrators' hands. That's the bottom line. This will become a decision within the Commonwealth, at a government-level. ``I don't think, unfortunately, this will be purely a cricketing decision.''

The countries most likely to refuse to play in Zimbabwe are Australia and England, both major outfits. England attempted to have its five match one-day series in Zimbabwe last October shifted to South Africa but could not because of potential political problems between the two countries.

Bacher's committee began making contingency plans in January to host all six of Zimbabwe's matches in South Africa should the political and economic crisis there continue. However, he said the final decision on whether or not matches will be played in Zimbabwe was likely to be made at a government-to-government level.

Bacher met South African government representatives in January to discuss potential problems with Zimbabwe and has now requested another meeting.

"You cannot keep sport and politics apart. Not in Africa. You cannot. It's impossible,'' he said. "We will do everything possible to keep World Cup cricket being played in Zimbabwe. It's consistent with our approach from day one that we want to spread cricket into Africa and we want to help Zimbabwe cricket.

"But, ultimately, the political situation there may very well determine that we need to reassess this whole situation. Any decision will not be taken by the cricket board unilaterally. It cannot be. It will have to be taken after discussions with Zimbabwe cricket, the ICC (International Cricket Council) and our own government. We've got to be realistic.''

A decision has to be made within three months because of ticketing considerations. "We can't wait until November because on July 15 people on the internet will want to buy their tickets. Our whole policy is based on either a stadium package or team package,'' Bacher said.

"You follow a team in the pool games in all its matches which, at the moment, includes going to Zimbabwe. There are other consequences of it.

"The ZCU, to its credit, at its own cost, has almost completed the process of upgrading its grounds. There has been a lot of money spent. There's that factor to look at. They need the returns.''

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