Cricket is a genteel sport of white-uniformed players, sun hats, and tea breaks. But as the world's cricket-playing nations, mostly former British colonies, prepare for the triennial World Cup next month, a fierce debate is raging about whether the game should be used for political ends.
South Africa is hosting this year's World Cup. But six of the competition's 54 matches will be played in neighboring Zimbabwe, currently wracked by political turmoil, illegal farm seizures, and massive food shortages. And pressure is mounting from within the British government for England and Australia - two of Zimbabwe's biggest critics - to withdraw their teams from the Zimbabwe matches to protest the repressive government of President Robert Mugabe.
South Africa knows well how sports can be used to affect political change. Boycotts helped bring an end to the white apartheid regime eight years ago.
But South Africa is balking at taking action against Zimbabwe, and some players and team representatives from Britain and Australia say they are being unfairly targeted, arguing that any action should be part of an overall boycott, like the ones used against apartheid.
"Our position really is that we think its very unfair that cricket has been singled out and asked to take the moral high ground on this issue when other sports haven't," says Andrew Walpole, a spokesman for the English and Wales Cricket Board. "There is no international sporting boycott of Zimbabwe.... Additionally, there are more than 300 British companies that continue to trade freely with Zimbabwe. Why are they not being asked to take action against Zimbabwe?"
As hungry Zimbabweans wait at food-distribution points for international handouts or line up for hours to purchase scarce basic commodities with their increasingly worthless piles of Zimbabwean dollars, executives from England's cricket board are meeting Thursday with British government officials to discuss withdrawing the English team from its Feb. 13 Zimbabwe match. Australia's government, too, has been pressuring its country's team to boycott its scheduled Zimbabwe appearance.
Participating in a match, says the British government, will give tacit support to Mr. Mugabe's presidency and to the illegal land seizures and political mismanagement that have plummeted this country into near famine. Nearly 7 million people in Zimbabwe are at risk of starvation, according to the World Food Program, and the government has been accused of using food as a political weapon.
"We support cricket," says Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who claims that last year's presidential elections were rigged by Mugabe and his party. "But we don't support the holding of world matches in Zimbabwe because Mugabe will exploit it for his advantage and credibility."
South Africa finds itself in a difficult position. During apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) led an international sports boycott of South Africa, with the slogan, "No normal sport in an abnormal society." But the country's ANC-led government, often accused of being soft on Zimbabwe, says the World Cup matches there should go on and that there is no reason for a boycott. Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour even said sports and politics shouldn't mix.
Zimbabwean officials and some South African politicians have also tried to turn the tables on the debate, saying an British and Australian boycott of the matches is simply an attempt to keep the now-international sport in the hands of white colonialists.
"If the British and Australians want to keep cricket as a white and colonial sport, then they should do so alone because we are not interested in their rubbish," Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo told the state-run Herald newspaper.
Caught in the middle, between government calls for a ban and teams' financial interests, are the players. England's cricket captain, Nasser Hussain, has pleaded with the government to make the decision, saying he was not qualified to do so. But many athletes who played during the apartheid era were outspoken on that boycott, some wholeheartedly supporting and others openly defying the international ban on participating sporting events in South Africa.
Perhaps most difficult, however, is the position of Zimbabwe's players, many of whom are white Zimbabweans whose families have lost their land in the government's recent land seizure program. Although the team's captain, whose father had most of his farm seized last year, publicly says he opposes the boycott, several players speaking anonymously to a reporter from The Guardian (London) said they would support any decision not to play.
As the debate continues in London, Sydney, and Johannesburg, on the ground in Zimbabwe the situation continues to deteriorate. Food riots have broken out in at least two cities over recent days and the country's currency continues to plummet. Transportation has come to a virtual standstill due to severe gasoline shortages. Opposition groups have also threatened to protest the matches, leading to fears of violence.
If the matches do go on as planned, say opposition leaders in Zimbabwe, British and Australian fans will be rubbing shoulders with hungry Zimbabweans as they walk to matches past the mile-long gasoline lines where all the taxis are waiting.