2003 February 26, 2011

The wrong trousers

The 2003 World Cup was hardly cricket's finest hour ... but perhaps the most embarrassing incident for the hosts came at an otherwise forgettable match between India and Netherlands at Paarl in the first week

The 2003 World Cup was hardly cricket's finest hour. The tournament was dogged by political boycotts - England refused to play in Harare, New Zealand in Nairobi - the organisers and the ICC scored a series of own goals with their overzealous approach to protecting official sponsors at all costs, the crowds were poor and South Africa, the hosts, were eliminated from the competition before the bloated Super Six stage.

But perhaps the most embarrassing incident for the hosts came at an otherwise forgettable match between India and Netherlands at Paarl in the first week. Watching the match were some of the game's leading administrators, including the president of the ICC, Percy Sonn, who was then the president of the United Cricket Board of South Africa.

Sonn's track record was colourful to say the least. An outspoken man, he had a reputation for shooting from the hip. As the World Cup got underway he called for South Africa to cancel their tour of England in 2004 if the English refused to play any group matches in Zimbabwe. "I'm running out of patience," he said. "This is having a negative impact on our World Cup." Although his own board censured him for his outburst, Sonn remained unrepentant.

Sonn had also attacked David Morgan, the ECB chairman, describing him as "rude and discourteous" for missing the opening ceremony, distracted as he was by the lengthy negotiations going on in England's team hotel in Cape Town. Morgan had asked for a meeting and so Sonn invited him to Paarl as his guest.

If the UCBSA hoped that Sonn would fall into line after his outburst, it was soon faced with an altogether more embarrassing situation. At Paarl, Sonn took the term hospitality too literally and as the match proceeded, he became increasingly tired and emotional.

The presence of Morgan was doubly unfortunate. With his tongue lubricated by alcohol, Sonn reportedly let rip several times about England's refusal to play in Harare. Racing driver Sarel van der Merwe, who witnessed the tirade, told reporters that Sonn "literally fell out of his pants".

Stephen de Beer, a suite owner at Boland Park, told The Guardian: "He was clearly drunk already and did not know where he was going. I helped him to the ICC box." de Beer said Sonn's language was so embarrassing that, eventually, everyone "started to feel sorry for him". Morgan said diplomatically: "Percy certainly has a different style from other administrators but he didn't embarrass me nor was he abusive to England in any way."

Brother I am so ****ing drunk I don't know where the **** I am
Percy Sonn finds things all a bit much

The authorities must have hoped that the story would go away. They were to be disappointed. It emerged that Sonn had previously been accused of verbal abuse and drinking to excess at a post-match function while he was the vice-president of Western Province Cricket Association in 1997. In The Observer, Kevin Mitchell reported that Sonn allegedly told one person present: "Brother I am so ****ing drunk I don't know where the **** I am."

Sonn's initial reaction was to look to play the incident down. "I don't know what I was supposed to have done," he said. "If I used foul language, it was most probably suitable to the circumstances." The press were having a field day. When Canada were skittled for 36, Martin Johnson wrote that they were "bowled out in less time than it takes Sonn to empty a VIP drinks cabinet".

Local journalist Neil Manthorp in The Spectator was far more blunt, labeling Sonn "the preposterous piss artist of Paarl". He added: "Kick him out, for goodness' sake. The man's a buffoon."

It soon became clear that a more wholehearted apology was needed, and two days later the board issued a far more contrite press release. "I realise that my conduct fell short of the standards that people find acceptable for a person in my position and, if I offended anyone with my behaviour, I sincerely apologise," he said. "I apologise unconditionally, especially to all South Africans and to the world cricketing fraternity."

There was one more moment of embarrassment in store for Sonn. At the presentations after the final the crowd booed and jeered when Malcolm Gray, the ICC president, mentioned his name.

While the incident reflected badly on the board and Sonn personally, he somehow emerged unscathed and he took from Ehsan Mani as the ICC president in July 2006. His first few months in office were not short on drama and Sonn appeared to struggle to strike the right tone at times of crisis, not least at the height of the Darrell Hair controversy in August 2006, when he treated the press to a lengthy digression about his Air Miles.

What happened next?

  • Sonn was again booed at the final of the 2007 World Cup, and was widely criticised, perhaps unfairly, when he and not local legend Garry Sobers presented the trophy to Australia's captain Ricky Ponting
  • Sonn died in office in May 2007 aged 57 as a result of complications following a routine operation

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa