ECB relief over Zimbabwe withdrawl
England can at last plan with confidence for the World Twenty20 in this country next summer, after Zimbabwe today opted out of the tournament.
The England and Wales Cricket Board - and many of their counterparts around the world - breathed a sigh of relief when it was confirmed this morning Zimbabwe intend to withdraw from the second Twenty20 world cup.
The announcement followed days of frantic negotiations between delegates at the International Cricket Council annual meeting in Dubai, after the ECB last week banned Zimbabwe from their scheduled one-day international tour of England early next summer.
With the World Twenty20 due to immediately follow that series, instruction from Gordon Brown's Government was that Zimbabwe's cricketers would be unwelcome for the high-profile event - on account of the human rights abuses perpetrated in their country under the regime of president Robert Mugabe.
Resolution to the crisis was not forthcoming as ICC deliberations extended into an unplanned second day, with India thought sure to block any suggestion of stripping Zimbabwe of their full member status.
Instead, though, Zimbabwe Cricket themselves averted the collision course by agreeing to pull out.
It is an apparent compromise solution which means the event can still go ahead in England - fears were growing it would have to be switched elsewhere - while Zimbabwe retain the privileges and financial backing which come with full ICC membership.
"The Zimbabwe delegation to ICC annual conference week are aware of the decision of the British government not to allow their bilateral series in England in 2009 to go ahead," this morning's ICC statement reported.
"Zimbabwe Cricket have also taken note that the British government is likely to refuse to grant visas for the Zimbabwe cricket team to take part in the ICC World Twenty20 2009.
"Therefore, the Zimbabwe delegation have decided to recommend to their board that the team should withdraw from that event."
ZC are at pains to stress this is at present very much a "one-off" gesture and have reserved the right to revisit the subject - but it seems highly unlikely that, with face saved and major embarrassment avoided, there will be a subsequent about-turn.
"The delegation have undertaken to report back on the decision of their board to the ICC within one month," the statement continued. "The delegation will report to their board that they will not suffer financially as a result of their non-participation in the ICC World Twenty20 2009.
"The Zimbabwe delegation have agreed to take this decision in the greater interest of world cricket and the ICC. "This recommendation should be viewed as a one-off and will not be taken as a precedent."
The announcement has unsurprisingly found favour with the boards of England and South Africa - who began the recent chain of events by cutting cricketing ties with Zimbabwe last week - as well as Prime Minister Brown.
"This will allow the Twenty20 tournament in England to go ahead," the PM declared. "It also sends a powerful message to Zimbabwe that the government must change or face further isolation."
While the ICC are setting up a trouble-shooting sub-committee to head off any fresh problems with regard to Zimbabwe, the ECB are highly-satisfied with the turn of events.
ECB chairman Giles Clarke told BBC Radio 5 Live: "This has been a complex series of negotiations, and I'm very pleased we have reached the agreement we have.
"We had long discussions with all our colleagues in the ICC over the last three days.
"We made it absolutely clear how we saw the situation, and I'm very grateful to everybody for recognising the way forward."
Andy Burnham, secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, would have preferred tougher action from the ICC.
"I welcome the fact that Zimbabwe will not play in the World Twenty20 in England next year," he said."The Government made it clear that, in the current circumstances, the team whose figurehead is Mr Mugabe would not be welcome.
"While I would have preferred the ICC to take a stronger stance against Zimbabwe Cricket, this solution still allows individual cricket authorities to make their own choices over whether to play Zimbabwe.
"On behalf of the Government, I would like to thank the England and Wales Cricket Board for the clear and strong lead they set in these negotiations.
"As a result, individual cricketers will not now be placed in the invidious position of having to make difficult moral judgements."
South Africa captain Graeme Smith said: "I think our administrators' stance has been pretty clear on Zimbabwe of late. "For the game, and with the tournament being held in England, it is a good thing.
"It is always an interesting balance. I don't think sport will influence him [Mugabe] too much in his decision-making. But any sort of pressure on that regime is warranted - and our board had made that pressure clear, as have England."
Zimbabwe's decision to withdraw from the Twenty20 boosts the chances of Ireland or Scotland qualifying.
Three, rather than two, places must now be filled by associate members - and Ireland and Scotland will take part in the qualifying tournament in Belfast next month.
New ICC president David Morgan admitted, meanwhile, that - had Zimbabwe's full member status been suspended - there would have been the spectre of a legal challenge.
But he reported those considerations played no part in negotiations.
"It was quite clear there was no appetite to ban or suspend Zimbabwe for political reasons," he told Sky Sports News.