Zimbabwe to play in Intercontinental Cup?
One of the less well-publicised recommendations of the ICC's task team on the future of cricket in Zimbabwe, which was received by the Executive Board earlier this month, is that Zimbabwe should take part in the 2009-11 Intercontinental Cup.
The group, led by Dr Julian Hunte and also comprising ICC Chief Executive Haroon Lorgat and former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga, was set up last year at the request of Cricket Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabweans have, of course, not played Test cricket since 2006, and the remit of the task team was to investigate the current state of the sport in that country and to advise the Board on ‘constructive strategies and initiatives' to help with development, with a view to Zimbabwe returning to the Test arena within two years.
The 26-page report which the Executive Board accepted at its April meeting contains 35 recommendations, covering the structure and organisation of Zimbabwean cricket on and off the field.
One of these is that ‘Zimbabwe national or representative team be given the opportunity to participate in ICC Intercontinental Cup 2009/10. The prospect of Zimbabwe's return to Test cricket in two years would be enhanced by participation in the ICC Intercontinental Cup and in first-class matches against Full Member representative sides.'
A decision on whether to implement this proposal, and if so, how, will be made at the ICC Development Committee's meeting on 18-19 May at the very latest; it is understood that Zimbabwe Cricket has not yet indicated formally whether they would wish to take up such an opportunity.
It is, on the face of it, a sensible idea, and it would have the clear advantage for the top Associate and Affiliate countries of allowing them to measure their progress in first-class matches against a national team from a Full Member.
And one can see why from the task team's point of view, focused as they were on bringing Zimbabwe back into the fold, it was so attractive.
But it is not without its difficulties.
First of all, the ICC will need to decide whether Zimbabwe would be a ninth participant in the Intercontinental Cup, or whether their inclusion would be at the expense of one of the Associates. There would even be a possibility of expanding the competition to ten teams, giving another Associate country the chance to play at this level.
The current situation is that six teams – holders Ireland, Canada, The Netherlands, Kenya, newcomers Afghanistan, and Scotland – qualified automatically by filling the top six places in the recent ICC World Cup qualifying tournament in South Africa, and that the remaining two places are to be allocated by the Development Committee.
And time is short, since the competition is scheduled to start in the course of this northern hemisphere summer.
At the head of the queue for the remaining two slots are the seventh and eighth-placed teams from South Africa, respectively the UAE and Namibia. The latter, it will be recalled, were the beaten finalists in the 2007-08 edition of the Cup.
So it would be cruel indeed if they were to be excluded from the next edition in order to make room for Zimbabwe.
And more generally, it would be little short of an outrage if the first-class element in the ICC's admirable global development programme were now to be the victim of the desire to bring Zimbabwe back into Test cricket.
The counter-argument, no doubt, will be a financial one: there's a budget for the Intercontinental Cup, and it is presumably based on an eight-team competition. Even spread over two years, it represents a considerable chunk of the ICC's expenditure on development.
But again, why should the improvement of cricket among the top Associates and Affiliates suffer because of an entirely unrelated ambition to assist in the rehabilitation of a Full Member? Should Zimbabwe be included, the cost of their participation should not be charged to the development budget at all.
It is to be hoped that wisdom will prevail, and that if Zimbabwe take part in the next Intercontinental Cup it is as a ninth participant rather than as a replacement for one of the Associate sides.
That issue, however, is only one of those raised by the task team's recommendation.
Although the report acknowledges the significance of the underlying political, social and economic background in Zimbabwe, its recommendations take little account of it, and there is no mention, for example, of the question of the relationships between Zimbabwe Cricket, its players, and Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.
It's a matter of history that Zimbabwe withdrew from this year's World Twenty20 tournament in England because of the threat that the team would be denied visas by the UK government.
The political situation has moved on since that time, but the question remains whether the power-sharing agreement betweeen ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC is stable enough to hold. With the cholera epidemic continuing, daily evidence of political oppression, human rights abuses and corruption, and talks between the two main parties constantly on the brink of failure, the inclusion of Zimbabwe in the Intercontinental Cup would come at a highly problematic moment.
Although the European Union's embargo on travel does not include Zimbabwean sporting teams, would member states such as Britain, Ireland and The Netherlands issue visas to a team representing Cricket Zimbabwe?
And when Full Members are currently unwilling to tour Zimbabwe, as illustrated by the recent decision by New Zealand to postpone a scheduled ODI series by a year, how realistic or reasonable would it be to demand of the leading Associates that they should go where their betters fear to tread?
It's too much to hope that this recommendation, already accepted by the ICC Executive Board, will be consigned to the wastepaper basket.
But we can at least urge that it be implemented in a manner that does not damage the global development and High Performance programmes, and with a full and responsible understanding of the ongoing problems it will present.
‘ZC,' the report says, ‘must continue to strive for a return to Test cricket regardless of the social, economic and political circumstances in the country.'
Perhaps, but whether the rest of the world can be expected to ignore those circumstances with equal single-mindedness is a much more difficult question.