August 4, 2003

Life after Cronje

There's a guy works down the betting shop swears he's Hansie. Well, not yet there isn't, but one might well turn up if the Cronje cult gathers much more momentum. The increasingly sorry saga of Wessel Johannes Cronje took one of its more bizarre twists on Sunday with the publication in Britain of suspicions that his death, in a plane crash last June, was no accident. According to The Observer's monthly sports magazine Cronje, the corrupt former South African captain, may have been silenced.

Dark forces that stood to lose too much should Cronje ever come entirely clean on his involvement in and knowledge of match-fixing would be the most obvious suspects in this crime, if that's what it was. The Observer didn't lay it on quite that thick - it didn't have to.

Accordingly, for a few hours in South Africa today Cronje again ruled the media roost. "Was Hansie murdered?" asked the lead headline on a newspaper held aloft by a vendor in mid-morning traffic. "Who cares?" the nation replied as it drove by.

By lunchtime Cronje was once more a memory, and the cricket news concerned itself with more lively matters. "We'll bring you updates from the Lord's Test," announced someone brightly on the radio. "Oh, no we won't, because we stuffed them yesterday!"

The simple, wonderful truth is that Graeme Smith, a man whose passion is incandescent, not hidden in some offshore bank vault, has proved to all cricket-minded South Africans that there is life after Cronje. Smith has taken on the job of restoring South African cricket to the status it enjoyed before the triple disaster of Cronje, the thrashing by Australia in 2001-02 and the 2003 World Cup, with irresistible enthusiasm and confidence.

Shaun Pollock, who manfully stepped into the breach created by the first of those calamities, couldn't avoid the last two, both of which were haunted by Cronje's ghost. Smith has no connection, cricketing or otherwise, with Cronje. He was never part of the group that were somehow all smeared by their former captain's greedy folly, and who reacted to that slight by embalming his memory to the extent of stencilling his initials onto the collars of their playing shirts.

Those players could well find themselves among the sad souls to whom the embellished legacy of a dead Cronje means more than a captain, a team and a nation that has moved on to better things. Better? Yes, Smith is already a better player than Cronje ever was, and while he is a novice Test captain there can be few better foundations on which to build a career in leadership than insatiable hunger. A hunger for runs, records and success, that is - not for brown paper bags stuffed with illicit cash.

For most South Africans the legend of Hansie Cronje is recent history. For an unfortunate few it is right up there with those of Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe and JFK. Perfect material, in fact, for a dodgy country song.

Telford Vice is a cricket writer with MWP Sport in South Africa.