June 1, 2002

Hansie Cronje's tragic fall from grace

Hansie Cronje's tragic death in an air crash near George in South Africa's southern Cape on Saturday has ended one of the saddest episodes in South African sport. With the world apparently at his feet, Cronje allowed himself to be seduced by the millions of dollars involved in illegal betting in cricket and was finally drummed out of the game in disgrace.

Even those closest to Cronje could offer no explanation for his behaviour, beyond his own admission that he had "an unfortunate love for money". From being one of the most respected figures in the game he became an outcast and his shocking death came before he and the cricket establishment were able to effect some sort of rapprochement.

Before his fall from grace, Cronje had been South Africa's longest-serving and most successful captain, leading his country at two World Cups and, immediately before the match-fixing scandal broke, to a rare Test series victory over India.

He was groomed for greatness at Bloemfontein's Grey College, the alma mater of his predecessor as South African captain, Kepler Wessels. He played provincial schools cricket for Free State from 1985-87 and for the South African Schools team, along with Jonty Rhodes, in 1986 and 1987, captaining the side in his final year.

Cronje made his provincial debut for Free State in the 1987/88 season, and within three seasons had begun captaining the side. When South Africa re-emerged from isolation with a three-game one-day international tour of India in 1991, Cronje travelled with the team as a non-playing member, and just months later he was selected for South Africa's first World Cup campaign in Australia and New Zealand.

He made his Test debut against the West Indies in 1992 and scored his maiden Test century against India in Port Elizabeth later that year. His 135 was to be his highest Test score, although he was to score another five centuries in a career that encompassed 68 Test matches.

Cronje took over as South African captain from Wessels after a disastrous one-day campaign in Pakistan in 1994, during which South Africa lost six games on the trot to Pakistan and Australia. His first Test as captain ended in a surprise defeat against Ken Rutherford's New Zealanders at the Wanderers, but South Africa came from behind to win the series 2-1, and Cronje had begun to establish himself as a tough, uncompromising captain.

As a batsman, he was one of the world's finest players of spin bowling, making good use of his feet and the slog-sweep to dominate the bowlers, but he was less comfortable against fast bowling directed at his rib cage, a weakness exploited on different occasions by Darren Gough and Danny Morrison.

Even so, Cronje went on to score 3,714 runs at 36.41 and his right-arm medium pace often proved particularly effective on the sub-continent. In all he took 43 Test wickets at 29.95. He was more successful as a one-day player, scoring over 5,500 runs in 188 matches at 38.64.

It was as a captain, however, that Cronje stamped himself on the South African game. With Bob Woolmer as South African coach and Peter Pollock the convener of selectors, Cronje gradually exerted more and more influence over the team. It was this power that eventually led to his downfall.

Shortly after South Africa had returned from India in 2000, Cronje was implicated in match-fixing on the basis of tape recordings made by the Indian police. He denied the charges initially, but after a late-night change of heart faxed a confession to the then United Cricket Board managing director Ali Bacher.

Cronje was immediately sacked as captain and suspended, and after further revelations had come out of the King Commission of Inquiry into Match-Fixing, he was banned from cricket for life.

In essence, Cronje admitted to dealings with bookmakers over a long period, as well as offering money to several of his team-mates to underperform. Two of them, Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams, admitted their involvement and were banned from the game for six months.

During 2001 Cronje attempted to have his ban overturned in the Pretoria High Court, but his application was dismissed. Earlier this year he took up employment near Johannesburg, while continuing to maintain a home on the luxurious Fancourt golf estate in the southern Cape.

Despite Cronje's admissions at the King Commission, suspicions remained that the full story had not been revealed with several questions left unanswered. His tragic death, at the age of just 32, seems to have drawn a curtain on one of South African cricket's most unhappy tales.

He is survived by his wife, Bertha.