Obituary, 2003

Hansie Cronje



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Cronje, Wessel Johannes, South Africa's cricket captain in a record 53 Tests and 138 one-day internationals between 1994 and 2000, died on June 1, 2002 when the cargo plane in which he was travelling crashed on Cradock Peak in the Outeniqua mountain range on its approach to his home town, George, in the Western Cape. He was just 32. Two years earlier, Hansie Cronje's admission that he took bribes from bookmakers to provide information and fix matches exposed the extent of a corruption scandal that cricket authorities had signally neglected to confront.

At first he had hotly denied charges levelled by the New Delhi police, who during a phone-tapping operation in March 2000 heard him conspiring with an Indian book-maker, Sanjeev Chawla, to predetermine performances. And such was his standing as a player, captain and sporting ambassador for post-apartheid South Africa that few in the cricket world doubted him, preferring to heap scorn on the Indian investigation. Ali Bacher, managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, spoke of Cronje's "unquestionable integrity and honesty". Then, four days after the accusation, Cronje confessed in a 3 a.m. phone call to Bacher that he had not been "entirely honest". He was immediately stripped of the captaincy, as his side prepared for a one-day series against Australia, and in subsequent testimony to the government-appointed King Commission revealed, sometimes in tears, further details of his involvement with bookmakers in match-fixing. The cricket world listened agog as much as aghast. The game's reputation, it seemed, was at an all-time low. Cronje's life and career were in tatters.

It had been so different a decade earlier when, aged 21, he was given the captaincy of Orange Free State. His upbringing and education had groomed him for leadership. His family were of solid, middle-class Afrikaner stock, deeply religious and sporty: Hansie's father, Ewie, had been an off-spinning all-rounder for Free State in the 1960s. The importance of discipline, dedication and hard work had been inculcated in Hansie at an early age, honed at Grey College in his native Bloemfontein, and was made manifest in 1991-92, his second year in charge, when the young Free State team, coached by Eddie Barlow to a level of physical and mental fitness rare even for South African cricket, finished runners-up in the Castle Bowl (formerly the Currie Cup) and won the limited-overs Nissan Shield. The next two seasons brought Castle Cup and one-day doubles, followed by one-day trophies in subsequent years - a total of seven titles in five seasons. International commitments meant the young captain was not ever-present, but his influence remained inspirational.

He had made his debut at 18 in January 1988, joining his brother, Frans, for the Currie Cup games against Transvaal and Northern Transvaal. Innings of two and 16, then a pair, were an inauspicious start for someone who would notch up a record 15 first-class hundreds for the Free State, as well as six in one-day competitions. The following season, his unbeaten 105 against Impalas took Orange Free State into the Benson and Hedges Trophy final, where Frans's old school-friend Allan Donald blew Western Province aside with four for 18. Hansie's maiden first-class hundred followed in January 1990 when, captaining South African Universities, he hit 104 against Mike Gatting's English rebels.

Inside the year, South Africa had been readmitted to full membership of the ICC, and the 22-year-old Cronje was one of four non-playing observers - two white, two non-white - taken to India with the first post-isolation side. Three months later, he was bowling five tidy overs for 17 as South Africa, captained by Kepler Wessels, shocked Australia with a nine-wicket victory at Sydney in the World Cup. He played in eight of their nine games in that tournament, including the infamous semi-final against England in which South Africa's target was adjusted after rain from 22 off 13 balls to 21 off one. Then he went to the Caribbean for South Africa's first Test since readmission, and their first ever against West Indies. Cronje scored only five and two, but in 68 Tests would go on to make 3,714 runs at 36.41, as well as taking 43 wickets at 29.95; in 188 one-day internationals he made 5,565 runs at 38.64, took 114 wickets at 34.78 with an economy rate of 4.44, and held 72 catches. His first-class figures from 184 games were 12,103 runs at 43.69 and 116 wickets at 34.43.

With his aggressive batting, intelligent medium-pace bowling and brilliant fielding, Cronje was a formidable competitor. The Indians discovered as much when they visited South Africa in 1992-93 and he took a career-best five for 32 in the opening one-day international, won it with a six with three balls to spare, and conceded only 3.59 an over in the seven-match series. That tour also proved he had the mettle for Test cricket. Going in in the second over at Port Elizabeth, he stayed eight and three-quarter hours (411 balls) until he was last out for 135, the first and highest of his six Test centuries. When Donald took his match haul to 12 wickets, South Africa had their first Test victory of the new era. Cronje's second hundred, 122, came in Colombo the following September to set up South Africa's biggest Test win - an innings and 208 runs - and Sri Lanka's heaviest defeat.

His good form initially held when, the youngest in the side at 24, he was Wessels's vice-captain in Australia in 1994-95. After Wessels broke a finger in the Sydney Test, Cronje took charge on the tense final morning to such effect that Australia, chasing 117 for victory with six wickets in hand, were dismissed for 111; his direct hit to run out Shane Warne from wide mid-off struck a crucial blow. He also took over during the one-day tournament when further injuries forced Wessels home, and at Adelaide became South Africa's second-youngest Test captain, after Murray Bisset in 1898-99.

But there was no fairytale: Australia won by 191 runs to square the series. Wessels was captain again when the two countries resumed hostilities in South Africa, and Cronje wasted no time extracting revenge for Adelaide. In six games in 14 days, he hammered the Aussie bowling for 721 runs: he began with 112 from 120 balls, the higher of his two one-day international hundreds, hit 251, his maiden double-hundred, for Orange Free State and finished with 122 in the First Test, which South Africa won by 197 runs. The double-hundred - next highest score was Gerry Liebenberg's 39 - remained Cronje's best.

This was a period of transition for Australian fast bowling, though. Cronje was given a harder time in England in 1994 and managed only 90 runs in six Test innings as Devon Malcolm and the young Darren Gough exposed a technical weakness against short-pitched bowling directed at his ribs. Spin gave him no such problems, and his armoury against it included a ferocious slog-sweep over mid-wicket, played on one knee. When he made what was then Test cricket's third-fastest fifty, off 31 balls at Centurion in 1997-98, he reached it by hitting Muttiah Muralitharan, the world's best off-spinner, for 4666 off successive balls.

In 1995, he expunged his unhappy introduction to English conditions by making 1,362 first-class runs at 50.44 in a one-off season for Leicestershire, whose cricket manager Jack Birkenshaw and all-rounder Gordon Parsons, Cronje's brother-in-law since 1991, participated in Orange Free State's triumphs. Among his four hundreds was 213 against Somerset at Weston-super-Mare. But it would take him ten Tests and until 1998 to reach 50 against England, whereupon he did so five times on the trot: 81 in South Africa's win at Lord's, 69 not out at Old Trafford, 126 and 67 at Trent Bridge, and 57 (plus a duck) at Headingley, where England took the series 2-1 with help from some inept umpiring. He was South Africa's top-scorer, with 401 runs at 66.83, but it was generally accepted that his unenterprising captaincy had let the rubber slip away. Instead of penetration he went for strangulation, setting defensive fields for his seam bowlers and encouraging them to bowl wide of off stump: what Bob Woolmer, South Africa's coach, called "aggressive containment".

Yet when Cronje succeeded Wessels in 1994-95, and began the partnership with Woolmer that masterminded South Africa's tactics until the 1999 World Cup, he was welcomed as an adventurous captain; one prepared to gamble. In his first series, against New Zealand in South Africa, he became the first captain since W. G. Grace to win a three-match rubber after being one down. When the teams met again at Auckland in March 1995, Cronje's pre-lunch declaration, setting New Zealand 275 to win in 63 overs, was the catalyst for South Africa's 93-run victory. Something saturnine in his demeanour, however, spoke of arrogance and calculated self-control; his dour expression suggested few concessions to humour or emotion. Yet there were times when the composure snapped. Shortly after becoming South Africa's captain, he received a one-match ban for dissent on dismissal in a Castle Cup game. When the umpires rightly ruled Mark Waugh not out after inadvertently hitting his wicket at Adelaide in 1997- 98, and he went on to save the Test, Cronje hurled a stump through their dressing-room door. At Cape Town in 1995-96, he was fined for imposing his will on umpire Dave Orchard to refer a run-out to the television umpire after Orchard ruled England's Graham Thorpe not out; the decision was overturned and South Africa went on to take the match and the series.

He could certainly be articulate and persuasive. The England bowler Angus Fraser recalled him holding an audience in thrall for 40 minutes, without notes, and reciting "word for word" from Hamlet. "His pre-match talks were often inspirational," Woolmer said, "and he led from the front." His players revered him. The Western Province seamer Craig Matthews credited Cronje with changing his life: "He actually persuaded me that I was good enough to play international cricket." At Cronje's funeral, Shaun Pollock, his successor as national captain, spoke of his love of practical jokes, often used to make newcomers feel at home. Pollock recounted being told to field next to a certain sponsor's advert, only to discover the sponsor had boards scattered all round the ground. As with most great leaders, Cronje's personality comprised a complex skein of qualities.

His captaincy record brooks few arguments. South Africa won 27 and lost only 11 of his 53 Tests in charge, with series victories over every opponent except Australia; in 138 one-day internationals there were 99 wins, as well as a tie. His record made a nonsense of the South African board's decision to appoint him for only the first two Tests against England in 1999-2000, even allowing for a downturn in his form and his apprehensions about the UCBSA's politically motivated policy of selection on racial quotas. Although he was later confirmed as captain for all the Tests and one-day games, his take on the turn of events was apparent in his brooding presence and the fact that he openly flirted with an offer to succeed Duncan Fletcher as Glamorgan coach.

He was still coming to terms, too, with that cataclysmic tie against Australia that cost South Africa a place in the 1999 World Cup final and dashed his boyhood dreams of leading his country to World Cup glory. With one run needed to win their semi-final, and three balls still in hand, South Africa's last pair, Lance Klusener and Donald, contrived the most fatal of run-outs. Cronje, who had been given out for a duck caught off his boot, was magnanimous in defeat as ever, but nothing could mask his anguish. Australia remained his bête noire.

He did outdo his Australian rivals Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh in winning a Test series in India, in 2000. South Africa won 2-0 and ended India's sequence of 14 unbeaten home series since 1987. But in that moment of triumph the seeds of his tragedy were quickly taking root. Ensnared in illicit dealings with sub-continental bookmakers after Mohammad Azharuddin introduced him to the match-fixer M. K. Gupta on South Africa's previous tour of India, in 1996, Cronje was now in cahoots with Sanjeev Chawla. Cronje unsuccessfully approached Pieter Strydom to under-perform in the First Test; before the Second he asked Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis and Klusener if they were interested in throwing the game for money. They put it down as another of Hansie's practical jokes. It was not until the final one-day game at Nagpur that he struck lucky, getting Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams to play to plan for $US15,000 apiece. Gibbs was supposed to be out for less than 20 and Williams to concede more than 50. That the plan went awry was ethically immaterial. He had lured two non-white players, the most vulnerable of his charges in socio-economic terms, at the very time he was supporting South Africa's development programme to bring young black cricketers into the first-class game. When it emerged that he told Chawla he needed $US25,000 for each player, so guaranteeing himself a $US20,000 cut, Cronje's greed was compliant with his guilt. Gibbs and Williams subsequently received six-month suspensions from international cricket.

Granted immunity from prosecution, Cronje told the King Commission he received around $US140,000 from bookmakers, including $US110,000 from Gupta for infor-mation on team selection, daily forecasts and when he would declare against India at Cape Town in January 1997. He denied ever fixing the actual result of a match. He also admitted telling the South African team, before the Mohinder Amarnath benefit game at Mumbai in December 1996, that there was $US200,000 (some sources said $250,000) on the table if they played badly. The team actually debated whether to accept the money before rejecting it; no one reported the matter to the authorities. Some of them thought the offer of a bribe reflected South Africa's coming of age in international cricket.

When Cronje rejected further advances from Gupta in November 1997, that might have ended his perfidy. But, as he told Justice King, he had "an unfortunate love of money... I am not addicted to alcohol or nicotine, but I believe this is very similar to an alcohol problem." Even so, it was small beer, certainly in terms of personal gain, that made him come off the wagon in January 2000. In response to a late-night visit from a South African bookmaker, Marlon Aronstam, he persuaded Nasser Hussain to make a match of the rain-ruined Centurion Test on the fifth day with a double forfeiture of innings - something not only without precedent in Test history but also outside the Laws. Aronstam had planned to back both sides at long odds and, even though the forfeiture deal was struck too late for him to place his bets, Cronje was given 53,000 rand (approximately £5,000) and a leather jacket for his wife. He was also acclaimed for his enterprising captaincy by unsuspecting commentators who welcomed England's win - South Africa had already taken the series - as a victory for common sense and the game. A fortnight later Cronje was meeting Chawla in Durban and leaving his hotel room with some $US15,000 tucked in a mobile-phone container. The die was cast.

Neither Justice King nor many others believed they had heard the full story, but enough was known for Cronje to receive a life ban from all cricketing activities. The Qayyum Report had already recommended a life ban for Pakistan's former captain Salim Malik; India's Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma would receive similar sentences before the year was out. And the ICC would eventually publish their own report into corruption in the game and implement a range of measures designed to keep the bookmakers at bay.

Meanwhile the most intriguing question - why he did it - remained an enigma. In multi-media interviews between his testimony and his ban in October, reputed to have netted a further £100,000, Cronje talked of "greed, stupidity and the lure of easy money" and claimed "I was arrogant enough to think I would get away with it". A born-again Christian who wore a bracelet with the initials WWJD - What Would Jesus Do? - he talked of how Satan had entered his world when he took his eyes off Jesus and his "whole world turned dark". There was something pre-Christian in this, an echo of Greek heroes blaming the gods rather than themselves for their misfortunes.

Cronje's appeal against his life ban was rejected by the Pretoria High Court in October 2001, and while there was talk of his having some future role in cricket, maybe coaching or in the media, he began to build a life away from the game. He enrolled on a Masters degree course, and in February 2002 joined the Johannesburg-based firm Bell Equipment, which specialised in earth-moving machinery, as financial manager. At the time of his death he was commuting weekly to and from his home on the exclusive Fancourt Estate in George. That fateful weekend, he had hitched a ride with the two pilots of an Air Quarius Hawker Siddeley turboprop after his scheduled flight had been grounded by a hailstorm - a risk-taker to the end.

More than a thousand mourners filled the Grey College Chapel for Cronje's funeral, while a thousand more outside watched the service, which was televised nationally, on large screens. It was reported that members of the UCBSA, critical earlier of their captain's betrayal, had been told they would not be welcome, but Bertha Cronje, Hansie's widow, said he would not have agreed with such a ban. The divisions were forgotten as South Africa, a nation rebuilding on forgiveness and reconciliation, mourned, in Gary Kirsten's words, "a great cricketer, a great performer and a great on-field leader of his country". It was elsewhere that cricket would still consider Hansie Cronje a tarnished hero.

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