Two months ago, we saw on television the leader of Zimbabwe’s main Opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai, emerge from a jail cell in Harare with a face so badly beaten it looked as though it had been inflated by a bicycle pump. He had been bashed in police custody by Robert Mugabe’s henchmen after being arrested with 110 other activists during a “Save Zimbabwe’” prayer meeting. One of Tsvangirai’s supporters was shot dead. Tsvangirai himself was later found to have a fractured skull.

The incident attracted worldwide condemnation but the howls of protest have done nothing to change Zimbabwe since that rally in early March. Its citizens’ human rights continue to be trampled by the Mugabe government every day. The economy is in ruins. Starvation is rife. Tyranny, and its attendant brutality, reigns. Opponents are killed routinely. As Peter Roebuck wrote in The Age today, life expectancy among Zimbabwean men has fallen to 36.

And yet the Australian cricket team is supposed to be touring the African nation in September for three one-day matches, a move that not only gives succour to the deranged old tyrant but tacit approval to his corrupt dictatorship, its violence and myriad human rights abuses.

The Australian Government has said publicly it wants Cricket Australia to cancel the tour. The International Cricket Council, however, has insisted the show must go on, warning that Cricket Australia would be fined up to US$2million if it pulls out. There is, after all, a contract in place, and revenue from television rights and ticket sales to think about. The only reason for Australia not to tour, says the ICC, is a security one. If its players and officials were demonstrably under “serious risk of death or injury” then the games might be cancelled.

But what would the ICC’s reaction have been if Tsvangirai and his supporters were tortured then killed in March? Would the ICC have been happy to sanction a tour to a regime that inflicted the third-degree on its opponents and totally ground into the dirt any semblance of democracy? Would that have been enough to convince the game’s ruling body that a cricket tour to Zimbabwe was not just totally inappropriate but ethically unthinkable?

There must be a tipping point when moral concerns override realpolitik and the fine print on cricket contracts, when the ICC decides that Zimbabwe is not worthy of hosting ICC-sanctioned matches nor of retaining its status as a Test-playing nation. For most of us with an interest in cricket, Zimbabwe long ago lost any right to play the game internationally.

James Sutherland, Cricket Australia’s chief executive, has said that Australia had an obligation to make the tour, having signed a contract with the ICC – along with other full-member countries – to play matches in Zimbabwe as part of the ICC’s preposterous future tours program. “From that perspective, we do not have much room to move,” Sutherland said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think that Cricket Australia are turning a blind eye about Zimbabwe or we don’t have some sort of conscience about that. But the reality is we have made formal commitments that really bind us to the ICC and all our members.”

Which sounds like a major cop-out. Sport can make a difference when it makes a stand. The Gleneagles Agreement showed that. Mugabe’s crimes certainly rival those of South Africa’s old white supremacists and cricket eventually isolated them until they came to their senses.

Yes, some will say if you pick on Zimbabwe for its maladministration, where do you stop? But that seems a lame response and an abrogation of responsibility. Banning cricket fixtures would help turn Mugabe’s regime into a sporting pariah and send a powerful signal of international anger: he is known to value visits from cricket teams representing Australia and England because they create a veneer of respectability for Zimbabwe.

Any decision to go ahead with the Australian tour — even if the cricket will be as compelling as the most lopsided World Cup fixture — is a propaganda victory for Mugabe and it’s difficult to see how it could be otherwise.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey