Four of the Ireland squad travelling to Zimbabwe tomorrow for an Intercontinental Cup game and three one-day internationals will be going to the country against the advice of their government.
Captain William Porterfield, Andrew White, Gary Wilson and Paul Stirling are all UK passport holders but because cricket is an all-Ireland sport, with players from two jurisdictions, it is an anomaly over which the quartet have no control, once Cricket Ireland took the decision to go, based on the Irish government’s support of the new Unity government in Zimbabwe.
Porterfield and Wilson are county professionals based in England, Stirling is contracted by Cricket Ireland and White is a Belfast schoolteacher.
“With the World Cup in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka just five months away, no player is really in a position to say ‘no’ and our focus will be fully on beating Zimbabwe in their own backyard.
“It would be a tremendous boost to our confidence ahead of the World Cup and a 3-0 win in the one-day series will put us above Bangladesh in the world rankings, for the first time,” said White.
Last week Scotland pulled out of their Intercontinental match, due to be played in Zimbabwe next month, because the British government said they were still unhappy with the lack of progress of political reform in the African country while the MCC are also refusing to send a team, which was due to double-up as a fact-finding mission because, according to sports minister Hugh Robertson, “the positive signal such a tour would send would not be appropriate”.
Cricket Ireland received the same message from the Foreign Office in London but the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said, unequivocally, “It supports the Unity government in Zimbabwe and has no objection to an Ireland team touring there”.
Following this conflicting information, Cricket Ireland invited David Coltart, the Zimbabwe sports minister who was visiting Scotland to convince them to come to his country, to travel over to Belfast last month to address the Ireland squad.
Coltart, who had survived an assassination attempt seven years ago, compared the situation in Zimbabwe 2010 to South Africa in the early 1990s when sporting teams there were readmitted to international competition while the apartheid regime was still in power.
He told the players that everything was still not perfect, indeed there was much still wrong with the country, but political change was happening and it is positive. He believed that sport can play a constructive and healing role without legitimising what had gone before.
That, along with the blessing of the Irish government was enough to convince Cricket Ireland that they should abide by the International Cricket Council’s request and travel to the country, as the cricketers of India and Sri Lanka have already done this year.
CI chief executive Warren Deutrom explained their decision: “While the political and moral considerations were the priority considerations, as the national governing body for cricket in Ireland, it would be disingenuous to say that there isn’t a strong cricketing reason to travel to Zimbabwe. It gives the squad vital ODI practice before the World Cup (and) would send out a terrific message if we were to prevail against a Test member in a multi-day match.”
For the UK passport holders in the Ireland team, however, as White admits, they are in a difficult position.
“I, personally, have no problem with going to Zimbabwe and although I admit to not knowing too much about the situation there, having listened to Mr Coltart, in an eye-opening and frank discussion, he is in as good a position as anyone to give advice, having survived an assassination attempt and now happy to be part of the new government.
“We are going as a sporting team to play sport and that is all.”
The UK passport holders in the party have been assured that if there is trouble they will have the support of the British embassy in Harare and the Irish consul in Pretoria. But it is certainly in Zimbabwe Cricket’s interest to ensure the two-week tour passes off peacefully, just as the much higher-profile tri-series with India and Sri Lanka did three months ago.
Zimbabwe are currently coached by Alan Butcher, the father of former England batsman Mark, and is one of 10 Englishmen playing or coaching in the country.
The Intercontinental Cup match, against a Zimbabwe XI, which Ireland must win with maximum points to have any chance of reaching the final, starts on Monday with the three ODIs against the full Zimbabwe side on September 26, 28 and 30.