July 1, 2010

The Grinch who stole cricket

Just when his country had made it back into the fold after the years of apartheid came Cronje to end the innocence

It took a newsstand owner in the mid-afternoon madness of Manhattan to put Hansie Cronje in his place.

"What a cricketer he was," he said after we had established our respective credentials as Indian and South African, "but what a crook."

That exchange took place over the purchase of a copy of the New York Times on Lexington Avenue on a drenched day in March, 2005. The Cronje saga had ripped the heart out of South African cricket five years earlier, but the wounds were still raw. Now, another five years on, revisiting that bizarre time when cricket was crime and crime was cricket doesn't hurt quite so much. We're over it, but thanks for asking.

And if you believe that, you'll believe that diamonds mark the parking spaces reserved for elephants in the gold-lined streets of Johannesburg.

Part of the pain is the fact that a South African was at the centre of the scandal. We had, not many years before, thrown off the yoke of apartheid and been welcomed back into the world as prodigals. After being untouchables for so long we were everybody's favourite cricketing nation. At least, that's what being South African felt like back then. Cronje took that from us. He ended the innocence we were indulging in when we called ourselves cricket people. He was, and remains, the Grinch who stole cricket.

But as he emerged with puffy eyes, an uncertain mouth and weary shoulders into the blare and glare of the King Commission on June 15, 2000, he looked anything but monstrous. Gone was the square-jawed strut with which he had won the hearts, or at least the respect, of cricket lovers everywhere.

"The truth shall set you free," the judge, Edwin King, told him simply and powerfully. But Cronje didn't seem to be listening. He bobbed and weaved through the early parts of his testimony, even managing a weak smile at inappropriate moments. It couldn't last, and as the commission's legal team found its feet so Cronje lost his. Sportsmen who retire in conventional fashion are afforded a second honeymoon by their public, a gentle time before they ride off into the sunset of real life when they're treated as if they still are what they once were. Not Cronje. He was demolished as a cricketer and as a man in the space of a few weeks. Then he spent three days in the dock, watching his own funeral from an unsafe distance.

At the end, as he left the witness stand, Cronje needed the physical support of two men, one of them his brother Frans. Someone who once bestrode with a swagger the entire cricket world had been reduced to a stumbling mess.

It was the last time I saw him. The image will haunt me forever.

For some, this was more a beginning than an end. We started asking ourselves why a particularly unsuccessful bowling change happened when it did. Was that batsman really guilty of nothing more than poor judgement when he drove tamely to short cover and set off on a disastrous single? That catch was easier to hold than to drop, so how come it went down?

What would happen, we wondered, if both teams had been paid to lose? Would we see batsmen whose determination to be dismissed was matched only by their opponents' resolve to ensure that they survived and prospered? A diabolical notion indeed, but a contest of sorts would unfold nonetheless. Perhaps the scoreboard, which would have to have been designed by Salvador Dali, would tick backwards in matches of this strange ilk.

We accepted, bleakly, that cricket was not a game of talent, skill and honest chance. Instead, it was a series of suspicious events which were not as haphazard as we had been led to believe.

The other extreme was occupied by those who refused to believe that Cronje had done anything wrong. Or that he had taken the fall for a host of dirtier figures. These unfortunates were out in force on a particular morning during the King Commission when, from outside the august proceedings, a chant went up.

The trickle of reporters towards the noise swelled to a gush as the volume rose. Soon most of us stood on the pavement looking at a bunch of students opposite. Their undone trousers were around their ankles as they sang, over and over: "Gee vir Hansie nog 'n kansie." That's Afrikaans for, "Give Hansie another chance."

On another day I found myself in grim conversation with a member of the Cronje family. "You damn reporters; why don't you stick to writing about cricket," he snarled. "I wish I could," I replied. "If only the cricketers would stick to playing cricket."

How many other lies did Cronje tell us? How often did he loft a shot and hope like hell that he would be caught? How many players besides Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams did he drag into the darkness of cricket's underworld?

There had been nothing at all to laugh or be smug about on April 11, 2000, which veterans of that swirl of fact, fiction and fantasy still call Black Tuesday. As I made my way to the first press conference, a Reuters editor called to tell me that the news desk had declared the Cronje affair the second biggest story in the world that day. What, I thought to myself, could possibly be bigger.

For Ali Bacher, then the managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, the day had started much earlier. When the phone rings at 3am, the news can only be as dark as the night it rends. Cronje called Bacher to say he had not been "entirely honest" with him.

Before that moment, Cronje had grabbed by the throat reports of his involvement in match-fixing. "I am stunned," he said on April 7, the day the story broke in India. "The allegations are completely without substance. I have been privileged to play for South Africa since 1992 and I want to assure every South African that I have made 100% effort to win every match that I have played."

Bacher stood by his man: "I have spoken to Hansie and he says it is absolute rubbish. He is known for his unquestionable integrity and honesty." Two days later Cronje couldn't quite look a roomful of reporters in the face when he said, "I have never received any sum of money for any match that I have been involved in and have never approached any of the players and asked them if they wanted to fix a game."

A lie, of course. Cronje received an offer of $250,000 for South Africa to lose a one-day international against India in 1996. That was bad enough, but not as alarming as the fact that he put the proposition to his team. Most disturbing of all, the South Africans met three times to discuss the offer before turning it down.

How many other lies did Cronje tell us? How often did he loft a shot and hope like hell that he would be caught? How many players besides Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams did he drag into the darkness of cricket's underworld? How often did he go onto the field not caring a jot about the hopes of a nation he carried with him?

We will never know, because on June 1, 2002, Cronje died in a plane crash. He left behind him a South African cricket landscape as desolate as the Cape mountainside on which his life came to a harsh end. Distrust and gloom hung over the game in this country like the fog that caused the aircraft that was carrying him to lose its way.

Graeme Smith's appointment as captain in 2003, which represented a clean break from the Cronje era, heralded a brighter day. But South Africa only re-emerged fully into the light when they won their first Test series in Australia in 2008-09. There was finally a bigger elephant in the room than the match-fixing scandal, and it was a welcome guest.

Some thought Cronje would have made a place for himself in the sun of this new time, that he would have returned rehabilitated and ready to give back some of what he took. For these hopeful souls, Cronje's premature death was a tragedy. For those of a more sober disposition, tragedy had befallen him some years earlier.

Will the hard of heart ever forgive him? Don't bet on it.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa