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Controversy Swirls Around Cricket World Cup - 2003-02-07

The Cricket World Cup opens in South Africa Sunday, amid much controversy over matches planned for Zimbabwe and Kenya.

South African radio and television stations are busy promoting the launch of the Cricket World Cup, scheduled for Saturday. But despite the hype, controversy continues to threaten the tournament's success.

The New Zealand team has already announced that it will not play its scheduled match in Kenya because of security fears, following November's terrorist attack in the coastal city of Mombasa.

New Zealand's team, the Kiwis, have had first-hand experience with terrorism. A powerful, deadly bomb went off outside their hotel in Pakistan last year. The cricketers were not the targets of the blast, but the close call left them unwilling to take chances. Critics, however, point out that the Sri Lankan players are no strangers to the impact of terrorism, and they still intend to play their match in Kenya.

But the main controversy continues to surround Zimbabwe, and the English team's reluctance to play there. After a four-hour, closed-door meeting Thursday, the ICC denied England's request to move their match to South Africa instead of Harare on safety grounds. The English team appealed, leaving the final decision to South African Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs.

Cricket World Cup Executive Director Ali Bacher is desperately hoping the controversy over Zimbabwe will not overshadow the World Cup itself. For weeks, he has been urging the media to stop focusing on Zimbabwe, and start focusing on cricket. "We are confident that this will be a terrific world cup for South Africa, for Africa and for international cricket," he said. "But it's very important that non-cricketing issues as soon as possible get off the front page and get replaced by cricketing topics and discussion, because we are about to host, within this country and in Africa, the world's premier players."

That was more than two weeks ago, just after he returned from a fact-finding trip to Zimbabwe. On the eve of the opening ceremony, Mr. Bacher's wish still had not come true. The Cricket World Cup continues to get international attention, but not because of the quality of the cricket to be played.

At last, however, the South African media are starting to think about the opening match. The South African team will meet the West Indies at Newlands in Cape Town on Sunday.

As for the rest of the competition, the Australians are the defending World Cup champions, and they are going into this tournament the firm favorites. South Africa is ranked a close second, and hopes to pull off an unprecedented home-team victory; the host nation has never before won the World Cup.

Bookies say other potential candidates for the trophy are Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and possibly the resurgent West Indies.

New Zealand and England could be seriously hurting their own chances by refusing to play in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Any team that chooses not to play its scheduled matches will forfeit the points it could have gained from those games, making it harder to reach the second round.