The timing couldn’t be worse.
The suspension of Zimbabwe at last week’s ICC Annual Meeting on grounds of government interference may be seen as long overdue by many, others will argue that the ICC has hamstrung cricket in the country just as it was on the cusp of a much-needed clean-up. But for the players, who are always the first to suffer, it is above all ill-timed.
It was the women who suffered first, and hardest. Whilst the men’s team were on tour to the Netherlands and Ireland when the first hints of trouble emerged, the women were just about to join them. They never left. News broke that Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Commission had suspended the entire Zimbabwe Cricket Board, headed by recently re-elected Chair Tavengwa Mukuhlani, together with acting CEO Givemore Makoni. Soon after, it was clear that this had not gone unnoticed in Dubai. The cancellation of the Lady Chevrons tour to Ireland and the Netherlands was the first hint that the SRC, led by high-profile lawyer, and long-term ZC antagonist Gerald Mlotshwa (who happens to be President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son-in-law) may have miscalculated. The ICC had already shut off the money.
The Women’s T20 World Cup Qualifier starts in Scotland next week. Zimbabwe will almost certainly miss it, and consequently the tournament itself. The men’s Qualifier follows in the UAE in October, and though rumours are rife in Zimbabwe that if the SRC backs down at once and restores the Mukuhlani board they may retain their spot there, as it stands they are barred from competing and word coming out of London last week was that the ICC will not revisit the suspension before October regardless. For a country that struggles for fixtures at the best of times, being shut out of as many as five global events in the space of a year (with the Under-19 World Cup also scheduled for early 2020) is nothing short of a calamity.
More broadly though, the timing raises questions as to what, if anything, the ICC hopes to achieve with its draconian response. In light of the ICC’s traditionally indulgent attitude toward Zimbabwe’s long-standing governance problems and history of financial mismanagement, and indeed those of other ICC members the questions that loom largest are “why Zimbabwe?” and “why now?”
The simplest answer is of course to take the ICC’s reasoning at face value. Despite the protestations of Zimbabwe Sports Minister Kirsty Coventry that the SRC is not a government body and its intervention does not constitute government interference a strict reading of the ICC constitution (specifically Article 2.4 [d]) leaves no such wriggle-room, making specific reference to “other public or quasi-public bodies.” Yet such strict application of the rules has generally been the exception rather than the norm at the ICC, and indeed the rules on government interference have historically been honoured more in the breach than the observance.
Only yesterday Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan openly promised to involve himself directly in the running of the game, saying “After the World Cup, I have decided that I will improve this Pakistan team. I am going to reform Pakistan cricket.” Such a statement would be unremarkable had they been made in 1992, but as Prime Minister giving a speech to a crowd of Pakistani-Americans while on a state visit to the USA it raises eyebrows. Indeed it is difficult to imagine a more clear-cut example of political interference. There is little suggestion anyone at the ICC took notice.
Other examples abound, Zimbabwe themselves have suffered when the governments of England or New Zealand have stepped in to lobby against their teams touring or hosting the Chevrons, and even the BCCI follows government policy when it comes to bilateral ties with Pakistan, and indeed currently operates under the supervision of a court-appointed administrators. One can of course make the case that the Committee of Administrators supervising the BCCI are appointed by the Supreme Court and thus their role amounts to judicial rather than political interference, but one has to squint pretty hard to see the distinction. And no amount of squinting will help if one looks at Cricket Kenya’s recent administrative history, sports minister Rashid Echesa directly dissolving the board in April last year and setting up an interim committee much like that established by the SRC to run the sport in the country.
More than a year later, despite lacking even the fig-leaf of an intervening body between the sports minister and the dissolution of the board, Kenya remain on notice rather than under suspension, and indeed will be participating in the T20 WC Global Qualifier come October. Quite possibly joining them there, and perhaps even taking Zimbabwe’s place, will be Nepal (assuming they get through the ongoing Asia regional qualifier). Nepal’s ICC membership has been suspended for more than three years on grounds of political interference, with little sign of progress in that time. Rather than barring Nepal from playing, the ICC has taken an active role in managing and indeed funding cricket in the country, with an ICC representative even sitting on the selection panel.
They took a still more indulgent attitude toward the United States, whose administrative incompetence was for years unparalleled in the cricket world. Rather than shut them out, the ICC allowed the USA to continue competing through their board’s repeated suspensions and eventual expulsion, pumping unprecedented amounts of funding into the country and closely supervising the establishment of a new administrative structure, which is now headed by none other than the ICC’s own former CFO and counsel Iain Higgins, who was appointed USA Cricket CEO just ten days ago.
The contrast with the current treatment of Zimbabwe could scarcely be starker. Not content with barring Zimbabwe’s representative sides from ICC competition, four Zimbabwean players and a coach (Mary-Anne Musonda, Anesu Mushangwe, Tasmeen Granger, Sharne Mayers and Adam Chifo) were unceremoniously axed from the ICC Women’s Global Development Squad just days before they had been due to embark on a tour to England. And despite overtures from the SRC requesting ICC involvement and indeed inviting the ICC to recommend appointments to the Interim Committee, currently headed by former ZC Chief Executive David Ellman-Brown, the ICC has apparently shown no interest in engaging with the SRC or the new temporary supervisory committee.
Consistency and even-handedness have never been hallmarks of the ICC’s treatment of its members, yet the draconian attitude shown to Zimbabwe, a full member, begs some explanation. The simplest is probably sheer exasperation. That was the analysis of Grant Flower, speaking to ESPNcricinfo, who surmised that “it sounds like the ICC have just had enough.” It’s fair to say that the ICC has shown great forbearance in the past, indeed this is not the first occasion that the SRC has stepped in, dissolving the ZC board in 2004 and several provincial boards two years later. At the time, the ICC turned a blind eye, as they would continue to do for years despite constant allegations of financial mismanagement, incompetence and corruption. It is entirely plausible that many at the ICC were just waiting for an excuse to dump Zimbabwe, and the SRC made the mistake of giving them one.
Yet mere frustration or exhaustion scarcely accounts for the apparently punitive line on player participation. The axing of the Zimbabwean squad members from the women’s development tour, with tickets already bought and paid for, seems too petty to be merely procedural. Cutting off funding is one thing, but the competitive exclusion, which suspended associates have tended to escape, seems intended to send a message. That message might reasonably be read as stating that Full Member boards are answerable to no-one but their peers and (ideally) their constituents. That is to say the other full member boards are circling the wagons, making it clear to their own governments that they cannot simply be turfed out without consequence.
There is of course some merit in that message, and good reason for the ICC to seek to protect its member boards from political interference, especially when many have to operate in jurisdictions where institutions and the rule of law can be lamentably weak, and others where governments are not always above using the sport as a tool for political grandstanding. Indeed though the credentials of Zimbabwe’s new interim committee are impeccable, Mlotshwa himself has a long and hardly friendly history with the Mukuhlani board, having been central to attempts to set up a player's union and representing former coach Heath Streak in a defamation case against them. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the SRC’s case, suggestions of a personal vendetta on the part of Mlotshwa do not seem quite so absurd.
Either way, it is inevitable that the consequences of the show-down between the SRC and the suspended board will fall principally on the players, not just the higher-profile men’s team, many of whom will be able to get by playing cricket elsewhere, but especially for the women and provincial players who in the absence of international or domestic cricket (the latter also largely dependent on ICC subsidy) are left with few options.
As it stands the SRC look unlikely to back down in the near future, having promised to “activate various contingency measures it had considered in the event of such a decision.” Nor is it clear it would help if they did. If the ICC’s actions are indeed principally intended to defend Mukuhlani’s board then it is plausible that a hasty volte-face from the SRC might resolve the situation, but though such rumours are circulating widely in the Zimbabwe press, the ICC themselves have made no public or official statement to that effect, and there are plenty who speculate that the suspended board themselves are the source of said claims. If the ICC really have simply run out of patience, the road back for Zimbabwe could be long and arduous, with plenty of wrong turns along the way.
In the meantime players go unpaid, ground-staff stay at home, grounds go unused and neglected. Night has fallen fast on Zimbabwe Cricket. It looks a long wait till morning.