England chiefs are blind to a clear bluff

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Normally when a sporting event goes ahead after a period of doubt - if the fog has lifted or the rain relents - everyone is delighted to get on with the game. The England cricket team's arrival in Harare on Friday, 24 hours after Robert Mugabe's regime unbanned 13 British cricket journalists, was somewhat different.

There are a couple of sparky youngsters in the side, covering for absent bigshots, who obviously want to make a name for themselves. Apart from them, no one is relishing the next eight days unless some of the more malignant officials in the Zimbabwean Information Ministry are giggling as they plan a bit more low-grade mischief. The original skirmish with the media has already cut the one-day international series from five games to four, starting Sunday.

In cricketing terms, the visit to Zimbabwe is a rather meaningless prelude to what should be a relishable Test series in South Africa. But no one can think of that, because of the ludicrous distraction to the north.

The atmosphere round the team hotel yesterday was said to be "hostile", with Mugabe's spooks lurking everywhere. Even if things calm down, most of the players would still prefer to be elsewhere, partly because they are professional cricketers who play too much anyway, and partly because it is such a nothing tour against the inadequates which are all Zimbabwe can now field, having driven out its experienced white players. If England even look like losing a game, it will be humiliating; if they do well, everyone will shrug.

The British government did not want them there either; the England and Wales Cricket Board did not want to send them; British press and public opinion were thunderously against; Zimbabweans have more pressing concerns.

So what on earth are England doing? They have been driven into going by the International Cricket Council, which has done its utmost to ignore or excuse the evidence of government-inspired mayhem and misdeeds within the Zimbabwean game.

The ICC has a case. The cricketing family is small - there are only 10 Test teams - but highly dysfunctional. Every international match - especially those involving the mother country - is suffused with post-imperial memories, some affectionate, some not. It sees its job as keeping the show on the road.

It believes the game cannot be played only between liberal democracies; that governments in Pakistan and Sri Lanka interfere in cricket just as Mugabe does; and that Zimbabwe's cricket administration is far from being the only corrupt one. And though Zimbabwe's cricket is obviously racist (whatever the official verdict of the recent ICC inquiry) this is not without purpose: the game cannot survive there as the preserve of a fast-diminishing white minority.

The problem is that the ICC has stood by while the price of this policy has risen ever higher. Zimbabwe long ago crossed the line that separates dictatorship from tyranny, and the interference is palpably designed to damage cricket and further Mugabe's whims. It is one thing to try to introduce more black cricketers, as South Africa is doing; it is another to force the whites out. Cricket in Zimbabwe has endured a less bloodthirsty rerun of the farm invasions.

The ECB long ago decided it would rather not play there until Mugabe left power. England refused to go during the 2003 World Cup, which cost them a lot of money and a chance of the trophy. Since then, the ECB has been cowed into line by more forceful sporting politicians: the ICC threatened to suspend England if there were a repetition.

It was a bluff. If the ICC is terrified of losing Zimbabwe, a country that brings little to cricket except trouble, would it really dare to ban England, still the game's second-biggest market behind India? Try telling the hoteliers of Durban and Cape Town, jacking up their prices for a bumper Christmas as the English supporters roll in: "Sorry chaps, we're playing Zimbabwe instead. Forget the 10,000 visitors, expect 10."

Everyone saw it, except England. David Morgan, the ECB chairman, doggedly did the ICC's bidding against his own better judgment because he thought he had to. When the England team was dreadful, Lord's committee men still strode confidently across the globe. Now the team inspires fear, but its administrators cower miserably.

The 24 hours during which the ban on the journalists was imposed gave England one final chance of opting out. If Morgan had said, "Enough, it's off", he would have had such public support at home that there would have been a whip- round to prop up the ECB if the ICC had dared to try anything.

He took what for him was the softer option, and the wrong one.

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