logo

Cricket World Cup: How Politics Derailed England's 2003 Campaign

The glory of 2019 stands out as a bright spot amid the misadventures with waterlogged bicycles, shock defeats, and overall incompetence that cricket fans have come to expect every four years.

Amid the usual disappointment and despondency, there is one episode that looms large as a modern-day tale of the clash between sports and politics.

The feud that engulfed England 20 years ago was sparked by the morality of playing in Zimbabwe and involved death threats, match cancellations, and ultimately their exit from the tournament.

To put it simply, English cricket was caught in the crossfire in February 2003.

While the World Cup was essentially hosted in South Africa, matches were also scheduled to take place in Zimbabwe and Kenya.

The government of Tony Blair did not want the England team to travel to Zimbabwe for a group-stage match due to the rule of Robert Mugabe but stopped short of declaring a boycott.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), mindful of the consequences if the match was not played, was keen for it to go ahead.

As a result, the 15 players and the rest of the team found themselves in the midst of a battle over the right and wrong of the game, all the while realizing that whatever decision they made could have serious, possibly fatal, consequences.

They circled the issue during conversations at the Cullinan Hotel in Cape Town.

"We sat in a hotel room for three days, discussing it, and then we went to have breakfast," recalls Nasser Hussain, England's captain at the time, in conversation with BBC Sport.

"Muttiah Muralitharan, the great Sri Lankan spinner, grabbed me and said, 'What's the issue? Just play in Zimbabwe.'

"I looked at him as if to say, 'It's not a problem for Sri Lanka, but it certainly is for us.'

"Sometimes politics and sport collide, and this was one of those times."

What was the Politics? Photo of Robert Mugabe Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2017. The significance of the British team's trip to Zimbabwe was rooted in the relations between the two countries.

Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 but was grappling with significant political and economic instability by the time of the World Cup. Thousands of white farmers were forcibly removed from their lands, often violently, in 2000 and 2001.

During the first match of the World Cup between Zimbabwe and Namibia, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga famously wore black armbands to "mourn the death of democracy" in their country.

"Mugabe said very inflammatory things about British politicians," says Olonga. "He regularly attacked Tony Blair for the war in Iraq. He was very outspoken. He didn't always speak kindly of Britain."

In the run-up to the World Cup, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) signed a contract with the International Cricket Council (ICC), committing it to send a full squad to play all the matches.

According to the ICC, only security concerns could be a reason to postpone or abandon a match. Otherwise, not playing would result in fines or even expulsion from the global game.

However, as the tournament drew closer, the British government gradually increased pressure on England not to play. Importantly, there were no guarantees of compensation for the ECB if it incurred fines, or if Zimbabwe canceled their planned tour of England the following summer.

"The government and the politicians knew very well that this match was meant to go ahead but left it until the very last minute," says Tim Lamb, the then chief executive of the ECB.

"At the time, British airlines were flying in and out daily. Hundreds of British companies were trading with Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe was still a member of the Commonwealth, and there was no international sporting boycott. Why single us out?

"The government refused to say, 'You can't go' or support any suggestions for financial compensation if we didn't go. The contractual obligation was perfectly clear. Only if there were genuine concerns for safety, or if the team was prohibited by the government. There was no other acceptable excuse.

"Clearly, we had concerns about the regime in Zimbabwe. It was absolutely abhorrent. I was well aware of what was happening, but we had a contractual obligation to fulfill this agreement."