By Joel Dubber
(Reuters) – Zimbabwe cricket fans, still stinging from their team’s absence from the World Cup, are fearful for the future of their game with severe sanctions possible for “government interference” after the replacement of the national cricket board.
Earlier this month, the Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) board was suspended by the country’s Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC). The action came after the cricket authority ignored an SRC directive to delay their annual general meeting, amid claims of maladministration.
This off-field turmoil marks the latest in a series of setbacks for cricket in the southern African nation. Having failed for the first time since 1983 to qualify for one-day cricket’s showpiece event, the team rarely engages in fixtures against high-quality opposition.
“There have been allegations of outright disregard for its own constitution, neglect of the development of the game and related infrastructure throughout the country,” an SRC statement read.
“This seeming chaos has seen those persons (and sponsors) with a genuine love and passion for the game and its continued development shy away from any involvement in cricket at all levels.”
The SRC has appointed a new board, led by Dave Ellman-Brown, to manage the affairs of Zimbabwe Cricket on an interim basis.
Ellman-Brown is a former chairman of the organisation, having overseen Zimbabwe’s ascension to test status in 1992 when the team was brimming with promise and boasted world class players such as Andy Flower and Dave Houghton.
The interim board has been tasked by the SRC to examine the finances of the association and assess claims of theft, fraud and corruption before conducting fresh elections by September 2020.
The intervention by the SRC, which is a regulatory body under the purview of the national sports ministry, has put Zimbabwe Cricket and the International Cricket Council (ICC) on a collision course.
ICC policy dictates that member boards must manage their affairs without interference from government or public bodies. If the ICC board deem that Zimbabwe Cricket has acted in contravention of its obligations, then the consequences could be as serious as the suspension of its membership and funding.
A spokesperson for the world body said that it was a matter for the ICC board to consider when it meets next month.
In an email to Reuters, ousted ZC chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani said: “The ICC board has a fiduciary duty to make sure that they dispense money into a stable environment and an accountable administration which is autonomous and free from interference from politics and government.
“It’s our right to put the record straight with the ICC and I must be at the board meeting.”
“Our message is very simple,” Mukuhlani, who is also a member of parliament for the ruling ZANU-PF party, said. “Government or political interference have no place in cricket and must not be condoned.”
The ICC has exercised its powers to varying degrees in the past, most notably in 2016 when the Cricket Association of Nepal was suspended and its funding cut off after the government-run National Sports Council formed a committee to administer cricket.
In 2018, when the Court of Appeal in Sri Lanka delayed the country’s cricket board elections and appointed a “competent authority” to oversee the sport, the ICC responded by imposing funding restrictions and a deadline for fresh elections.
The national teams of the respective countries were permitted to continue playing international cricket.
In the case of cash-strapped Zimbabwe, any reduction in ICC support and the foreign currency it provides would have disastrous consequences.
Accomplished international players such as Sam Curran and Colin de Grandhomme developed their game at age-group level in Zimbabwe before moving abroad and representing their adopted nations at the highest level.
In recent years, the loss of talented young players including Blessing Muzarabani, Nick Welch and Eddie Byrom to the first-class system in England has deprived an aging Zimbabwe side of a future core to build around.
The dire economic situation in the country means that for many, staying in Zimbabwe to play cricket is simply enviable.
“Even as is we have seen an exodus of players,” former coach Heath Streak told Reuters.
“If ICC withdraw funding (then) Zimbabwe is finished as this is probably 99% of their revenue,” Streak said.
“The current economic and political environment is tough so (there is) very little support coming from sponsors and corporates.”
With the Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers in the United Arab Emirates only four months away, it is incumbent upon Zimbabwe Cricket to retain not only the support of the ICC, but also of their players, if they are to avoid missing successive events.
(Reporting by Joel Dubber, editing by Christian Radnedge)