SPORT

Sponsor asks England not to tour Zimbabwe

LONDON Sept. 26. England has been urged to cancel its tour of Zimbabwe a year from now by its sponsor, the mobile phone company Vodafone because the regime in that strife-torn country is so reviled.

There is a suggestion that failure to comply with this request will result in Vodafone withdrawing its �4 million a year sponsorship. The England and Wales Cricket Board said on Friday that the money would not influence its decision.

The twist in this tale lies in the fact that it is made by Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, chairman of Vodafone and a former chairman for six years of the ECB. He said "the prospect of an England team visiting Zimbabwe with the current regime of Robert Mugabe in power was abhorrent. My company will be doing all it can to dissuade such contact".

He went on: "We have been talking to ECB since April to flag up our views. We do not want to support a side that goes and plays in a country with the sort of regime that is reviled not just by this company but by many in this country. To do so would be abhorrent and would be good for the brand image of neither Vodafone nor England cricket".

A spokesman for ECB said: "the tour is 12 months away. It would be wiser to take a decision nearer the time when we have all the facts, probably in the New Year".

Before any decision is made it will be necessary for England to talk to ICC, the world governing body who, as it has shown in its recent dealings with the South African tour of Pakistan, is insistent that tours continue unless there is danger. On the other hand it would not wish to upset Vodafone, particularly as it has had difficulty in finding sponsorship in recent years and face cuts when the next TV contracts are drawn up.

It is difficult to imagine that Lord MacLaurin, a millionaire several times, a big man in every sense and a member of any number of company boards has been motivated by his disappointment in being removed from the position he treasured at the head of English cricket; but it is an odd time to make this announcement. He has recently spoken in favour of the major changes in the game suggested by the Cricket Reform Group.

Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, said that when she died the name of the French port Calais would be found engraved on her heart. ECB must think in similar terms about Zimbabwe. It talked and voted against the admission to Test-playing status of this central African State 15 years ago, delayed a tour there until 1996 and then saw nothing but acrimony when it made its first trip.

One of my outstanding memories of touring with England is of the coach David Lloyd shouting "We flippin murdered them and they know it" after a contentious Test draw in Bulawayo. They were also beaten 3-0 in the one-day series.

Lord MacLaurin had his first hands-on experience of international cricket on that tour when he had to suggest to Lloyd that he conducted himself in a quieter way.

England was also twice defeated in humiliating circumstances in Australia by Zimbabwe and there is no doubt that the row which blew up about England's World Cup tie, scheduled for Harare last March, had major consequences besides costing it money.

The dispute was debated in a most public forum by media and players before the team voted to

ditch the tie and lose the points which meant it did not qualify for the second stage of the competition.

It was influenced by the Foreign Office, human rights campaigners and the Zimbabwe opposition. It left the captain Nasser Hussain shattered since he had to face arguments in his own dressing room and the media questions and may have played some part in his conviction last summer that he wanted no more of the captaincy.

David Morgan, the present chairman of the board, later visited Zimbabwe to ensure the tour went ahead. This summer Zimbabwe's tour to England was followed by two penniless protestors. Now a millionaire and his multi-national company has raised the stakes to a new level.

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