During the cold and wet winter of 1971, Sir Donald Bradman and newly appointed Australian cricket captain Ian Chappell held an extraordinary and historic press conference in Adelaide. The meeting was held to communicate to the world that Australian cricket was withdrawing its invitation to South Africa for the coming summer’s tour.
The reasons given were simple and from the heart. Chappell, Bradman and many of their contemporaries were appalled by apartheid. They were frustrated in particular with the Australian Government’s refusal to impose trade sanctions on the racist regime. The government had been lobbied and pressured by cricketers for near on a decade.
The movement was led coherently by Richie Benaud who returned from his first tour of South Africa in 1958 disturbed by what he had witnessed. Bradman in his prepared speech said “The feeble government reaction to this abhorrent regime is despicable. Cricket is the face of this young nation and not for the first time we will stand as one and try by whatever means possible to make a difference”.
It took a further six years before the rest of the Commonwealth fell into line. At the CHOGM conference at Gleneagles in 1977 it was finally agreed that the nations involved would discourage sporting ties with the apartheid regime as part of a wider campaign against racism. Australia and the Caribbean nations wanted an outright ban but the other Commonwealth countries led by Great Britain and supported curiously by many African members were more comfortable with the weak and malleable verb, discourage.
Seventeen years passed but eventually the hideous apartheid regime was toppled. It took longer than a quarter century to achieve but eventually the compassionate stone that Benaud through into the geopolitical pond generated a wave that swamped and defeated the inhumanity of European supremacism in South Africa.
You would think that after such a long struggle lessons would have been learned, not only by the citizens of the Southern continent but by members of all nations.
Just a fortnight ago, at the same time that the victorious Australian cricket team returned with the gleaming golden World Cup trophy, the United Nations allowed Zimbabwe to be elected to head the UN's commission on Sustainable Development.
Two days later Zimbabwean opposition leader Sekai Holland arrived at Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith airport in a wheelchair to be treated for injuries sustained in a brutal police beating.
She was scathing in her attack on the Mugabe regime and lifted her shirt to show the dark purple bruising that several untreated broken ribs had caused. She also was nursing a broken wrist and leg. Fortunately for the 63 year old grandmother, her Australian husband with the help of the Foreign Affairs Department were able to aid her getaway in an air ambulance whilst under house arrest in Harare. It has been reported that Zimbabwean President Mugabe was furious at Sekai’s escape.
With the World Cup back on the dry, red earth of the Australian continent and the players in the news, it was inevitable that the media would again ask questions about Australia’s next Zimbabwean tour. It didn’t take long. In the very first public presentation of the glistening trophy a reporter asked Ricky Ponting if he was comfortable about touring Zimbabwe in September for three one day internationals. Punter in his best diplomatic performance to date emphatically said, “No, I am not comfortable.” and the celebrating green and gold throng fell silent and under a cloudless sky a sombre tone descended. Ricky ever perceptive, noticed this, flashed his mischievous grin and retorted, ‘On second thoughts mate I’d rather play golf’. The crowd began talking and laughing again but the issue of Zimbabwe and Australian collective cricketing morality was not easily dismissed.
The future consequence of Australia’s finest filling Mugabe’s pockets with gold quickly became a major concern. The players were badgered about their views and Matthew Hayden’s thoughts were typical. He said that when Australia last visited Zimbabwe in 2004 he thought about boycotting, like Stuart MacGill. "I was seriously considering my position this time, as to whether I would go if the tour went ahead.”
"I considered not going last time but went in the end. I now regret it. This time I was considering it a lot more heavily. I think this time it could have been a case of once bitten, twice shy. While I felt our safety was compromised a bit, I just felt compromised in general. The whole tour became a farce."
With the players concerns now well known the spotlight turned to Cricket Australia, the governing body of Australian cricket. Under pressure the CEO James Sutherland threw up his arms in despair at being continually questioned about the morality of touring Zimbabwe.
“We are not a political organisation. That doesn't for one moment suggest that we don't operate oblivious to issues that are going on in those parts of the world, but we don't have a mandate to be making decisions on those grounds.’
He then promptly put the problem neatly in the foyer of the ICC’s offices in Dubai.
“If we do not tour, the ICC under current contracts in relation to the Future Tours Programme, have the authority to levy a fine of 2.4 million dollars onto Cricket Australia that would be paid indirectly to the Zimbabwean Cricket Union.”
Whilst Malcolm Speed and his cronies prepared their abysmal response to the moral challenge that confronted them, private talks between Cricket Australia and the Federal government were taking place. Initially the Prime Minister announced that the Treasury would pay the fine but had second thoughts when reminded that the cash would have little chance of filtering through to Zimbabwe cricket and would only enhance the regime’s bank balance.
In an election year with his government hanging on by its fingernails, the Machiavellian mind of the Prime Minister soon turned this moral dilemma to his political advantage.
Government lawyers were dispatched to Dubai to find a loophole. They reported back that indeed there was a loophole in the process that allows an exemption for any team banned from touring by their sovereign government, a clause that was necessitated by India and Pakistan's stand-off during the 1980s and 1990s.
Last weekend the Australian Prime Minister traveled without entourage to seek counsel from Ricky Ponting on this sordid affair. While Ricky’s gorgeous wife Rhianna prepared a sumptuous seafood lunch, the PM and Punter discussed the repercussions of not abiding by the ICC’s amoral agenda. On national television the next morning the Prime Minister announced that with Ricky Ponting’s blessing, during the next parliamentary session, legislation will be introduced prohibiting Australian cricketers from playing against Zimbabwe in September.
This sets what may become a dangerous precedent but in light of the ICC’s refusal to forfeit the fine the Australian people were left with little choice. If the cricketers toured, Mugabe pockets the funds. If they do not tour the ICC would effectively act as Mugabe’s agent and he still gets the cash. In legislating against the tour Mugabe gets nothing except more international condemnation and the besieged Australian government can pretend it has a moral conscience.
The populace now expect the Australian Government to also pass legislation in regards to trade sanctions and humanitarian aid distribution in Zimbabwe. The opposition have already stated that they will enact such legislation if given office later this year.
In an election year the government has little choice but to follow suit.
Of course Australia’s refusal to tour Zimbabwe will make little difference in the short term to the citizens of that country. But once again the Australian cricketing community has had to make a stand because the leaders of more powerful nations will not. History indicates that this small protest is the belated beginning of the end for Mugabe and his sycophantic minions.
Robert Mugabe is a cunning calculated dictator, and is it not time that the international community stopped allowing this thuggish tyrant to play us off, nation against nation, culture against culture, until the core of the issue - Mugabe's loathsome regime - is lost in the bickering?
The oft-misunderstood Ponting at today’s press conference stated, “I understand that no government in the world has a perfect record on human rights but Zimbabwe at the moment is beyond the pale. As far as this situation is concerned, I'm comfortable that the Australian government has taken the responsibility for making international affairs decisions on behalf of the country. As captain of Australia I've never had a problem playing against international cricketers from Zimbabwe. Hopefully the board can arrange for us to play them at a neutral venue.”
It took 40 years for Benaud’s dream of equal rights for all to be enacted in South Africa. I pray as do many of my compatriots, that it takes a lot less time to emancipate the dispossessed people of it’s northern neighbour.