As the dust settles on the ICC’s decision to suspend Zimbabwe, the situation remains far from certain. Players’ careers have been thrown into limbo, while Zimbabwe’s ban from participation in international cricket raises questions about a host of upcoming tournaments. The funding freeze has already resulted in the indefinite cancellation of domestic cricket (and player salaries), and also appears likely to see a further deterioration of facilities.
What does seem clear, however, is that the decision was driven by internal politics rather than a genuine concern for the best interests of the game in Zimbabwe. For the ICC to suspend (or indeed punish at all) a Full Member over breaches of its constitution is unprecedented; for them to do so now rather than at any prior point in almost two decades of maladministration speaks volumes of the true motivations.
Tavengwa Mukuhlani and the rest of Zimbabwe Cricket’s board were last month suspended by Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Committee and replaced by an interim administration, with an audit of their finances and investigation into corruption the top priorities. Mukuhlani subsequently led the push at the ICC to suspend his nation on the grounds of government interference, though it should be noted that Zimbabwe’s sports minister Kirsty Coventry strenuously denies this, and the SRC is not technically a government body. The nuance was seemingly lost on the ICC, who backed Mukulahni in setting the reinstatement of the previous board as a precondition of ZC’s return to the international fold. This then was not a surprising case of the ICC stepping in to uphold administrative standards or protect the well-being of Zimbabwean cricket, it was an entirely predictable case of cronyism and the ICC board protecting its own.
Now, defending the game against government interference is an entirely reasonable goal, and the ICC is within its rights to suspend ZC. Gerald Mlotshwa, the head of the SRC, is also Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son-in-law, so one suspects it may not be as independent as it claims. The problem though is the very selective enforcement of the political interference rule, with multiple examples in various other Full Members going unpunished, while even Kenya has so far escaped censure for their sports ministry dissolving the cricket board last year. This brazen double-standard would suggest that boardroom networking is significantly more important than the constitution, with enforcement determined by how many friends an administrator has rather than how well they uphold the rules.
The hypocrisy of ZC’s suspension also shows the ICC’s warped priorities in supporting Mukuhlani against the government. In turning a blind eye to over a decade of turmoil, the ICC tacitly endorsed bad governance, but by stepping in to protect the ousted board, they have openly embraced it. Looking back at the litany of incompetence and corruption, it is a frankly staggering indictment of the ICC that ZC managed to avoid suspension for so long. Years of chaos in the mid-2000s, when the game went into freefall after the famous 2003 World Cup protest by Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, were met with indulgence, as indeed was a blatant Mugabe-led dissolution of the board. Sinister reports of serious political threats like government operatives pursuing Tatenda Taibu’s wife, or Heath Streak’s family farm being on a list of properties set for confiscation, also fell on deaf ears at the ICC.
In 2013, then sports minister David Coltart even went so far as to compile a dossier listing corruption within the board. But when he submitted his evidence to the ICC, there was, again, no response.
More recently, the shambolic recriminations after Zimbabwe’s exit from the World Cup Qualifier last year followed serious accusations of financial irregularities, with player payments provided by the ICC allegedly interfered with, and wages going unpaid. Given ZC receives upwards of US $10 million yearly in ICC disbursements, the shabby state of facilities also raises questions about where the money goes, while inaction on the Metbank scandal (where ZC administrators allegedly mismanaged an ICC loan and used their position to enrich a financial institution they sat on the board of), seemingly indicates that fiscal responsibility is not a high priority for Dubai.
The other double-standard of course is the treatment of Zimbabwe’s players compared with the USA and Nepal. Where Zimbabwe are barred from international play, American and Nepali teams were allowed to continue competing on the field even as their administrations were suspended (and later expelled in the case of USA). The ICC even provided staff to help manage the game, and funds to pay their bills. With those nations something of a pet project for the ICC, it’s hard to escape the cynical interpretation that a softly-softly approach was taken in order not to derail the big plans for two significant emerging markets. But, whatever the motivations, for the ICC to have established a precedent of allowing teams to play whilst their off-field problems are cleared up was a positive step towards protecting the game in countries where the administration has failed. For them to ignore that precedent in the case of Zimbabwe seems retrograde at best, and it is desperately unfair on the players to use them as leverage in a political dispute.
As always, the ultimate victims are the long-suffering fans, with green shoots of talent and support that emerged during the World Cup Qualifier trampled over, and players who give their all to do their nation proud (often in trying circumstances) again pushed against the wall by politics.
So as Zimbabwe stares into the abyss of another lost generation, it becomes clear that not only has the ICC shown little interest in addressing the myriad deep-rooted problems plaguing their cricket, but that in demanding the reinstatement of the previous board, they demonstrate a clear endorsement of Mukuhlani’s team rather than any desire to clean up the game. If they truly cared about governance, they would have stepped in long ago.
This is an opinion piece, and the personal views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Emerging Cricket as a whole.