Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has used strong language to decry what he calls British neocolonialism, which he says is behind daily rumors that he will be nudged into retirement. But now he finds himself fiercely defending his role as host of one of the British Empire's most enduring legacies: cricket.
The cricket World Cup is coming to South Africa next month, and neighboring Zimbabwe is to host six of the 54 matches. Somehow this highly civilized sport, a gentlemanly affair played with sun hats and tea breaks, has become the lightning rod for a widening political contretemps.
Mugabe has weathered criticism over state intimidation of opposition figures, endured international accusations of fraud in last year's presidential election and defended the violent seizure of white-owned farms for landless black farmers -- a campaign partly blamed for the food shortages that threaten two-thirds of Zimbabwe's 11 million people.
But since government officials in Britain and Australia pressed their cricket teams to pull out of their World Cup matches in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has strafed his critics with some of his saltiest language yet.
"Australia has criminal blood," he declared, as the cricket affair reached a boiling point last week.
"There are criminals who were shipped to that place and settled there," he said, in a gibe at Australia's days as a dumping ground for British convicts. "It is not surprising that they are speaking like that. They should not mix sports and politics."
But sports and politics were anything but divorced in the view of Mugabe's information minister, Jonathan Moyo, who told a state-run daily that "if the British and Australians want to keep cricket as a white and colonial sport, then they should do it alone, because we are not interested in their rubbish."
British and Australian cricket authorities, who would lose World Cup points and money if they pulled out, have said that they will still play in Zimbabwe, despite repeated appeals from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other officials.
"We have not been elected to make decisions of a political nature," was last week's pronouncement by England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive Tim Lamb, whose meetings have been dogged by protesters carrying placards reading "Bow Out Killer Mugabe" and "Berlin 1936, Harare 2003," a reference to Olympic Games hosted by Nazi Germany.
The International Cricket Council, or ICC, has said it would reconsider Zimbabwe matches if there is "significant deterioration" in the security situation, and cricket officials say there are contingency plans to move the six matches to South Africa. (Security conditions also will be monitored for the run-up to two matches in Kenya, where a suicide bombing killed three attackers and 13 other people in November.) Council chief executive Malcolm Speed traveled to Zimbabwe on Wednesday to reassess the security situation with Ali Bacher, the executive director of the ICC World Cup. At a news conference in Johannesburg on Thursday en route to London, Speed said he would present his assessment at a meeting today of the ICC board, which will make the final decision.
"It looks like it's still on, but we wouldn't be too surprised if it's called off for security reasons," a British diplomat said. "Things have changed. The opposition has said they could use the games to raise the profile of Zimbabwean protests against Mugabe."
The threat of protests raises fears of clashes with authorities. There have been food riots in two Zimbabwean cities recently -- one Jan. 7 in Bulawayo, where Australia is to play Zimbabwe on Feb. 24 -- and gasoline shortages have brought much of the nation's transportation to a grinding halt.
Harare, the capital, is abuzz with reports of a plan to end Zimbabwe's crisis with a deal to retire Mugabe, who has been in power for 23 years. Speculation over the deal is so public that Malaysia has officially denied it is offering him asylum.
A number of Mugabe critics have been arrested recently, and one opposition member of Parliament said he was tortured. Harare Mayor Elias Mudzuri spent last weekend in police custody, and when he emerged Monday, he told journalists that he had withdrawn his support for the games because fans and cricketers were at risk of new laws that criminalize such ordinary impulses as pointing and gesturing at Mugabe's motorcade.
"I must be honest and say I can no longer guarantee their safety," he said. "What we are seeing is an intensification of the rhetoric and the assault on the opponents of Mugabe. How can I stand up and guarantee the safety of these visitors in light of such developments?"
Ironically, Mugabe is the official patron of Zimbabwe's national cricket team.
"What better patron? Except now," said a Western diplomat in Harare, who requested anonymity. "I think they were hoping to use [the matches] to put a positive spin on Zimbabwe, to market beautiful Victoria Falls, but the Britons and Australians threatening to pull out certainly put a damper on the picture he's trying to paint."
The brouhaha has touched off daily discourse in South Africa, where the African National Congress once used a global sports boycott in its movement to end apartheid. Now in power, the ANC will preside over the World Cup opening in Cape Town on Feb. 8. Some ANC members of Parliament bristle at suggestions that it is hypocritical not to oppose the Zimbabwean matches on the same grounds that world athletes once boycotted apartheid.
Ruth Ntshulana-Bhengu, chairwoman of Parliament's sports committee, told an interviewer that sports in South Africa during apartheid rule were "an expression of that regime's commitment to white minority domination to the exclusion of other South Africans," while sports in Zimbabwe do not marginalize any particular race.
If the cricket World Cup, held every four years, seems bogged down in historical grievances, it is because many countries participating are former British colonies whose struggles for independence brought tensions that still play out today. Mugabe, 78, led his country to independence from Britain in 1980 and has held power since.
Several players on Zimbabwe's cricket team, including the captain, are whites whose family farms were seized in Mugabe's controversial land reform -- a program in which several white farmers were killed.
But when Mugabe publicly blamed Zimbabwe's woes on a history of British meddling last week, former Zambian President Kenneth D. Kaunda suggested that it was time to stop fighting "colonial ghosts."
"Yesterday it was the fight against colonialism," Kaunda said, sharing a stage with Mugabe at an awards ceremony in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. "Today it is HIV/AIDS, not white or black."