Cricket: Quiet Cronje displays the human touch: South Africa's vice-captain no longer appears too good to be true. Glenn Moore reports

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ENTRUSTING a team-mate with the responsibility of cutting your hair is the sort of daft thing sportsmen do on tour, like drinking after-shave or flying Tiger Moths. But while no one was surprised when Chris Lewis handed the razor to Devon Malcolm in the West Indies, contracting sunstroke as a result, Hansie Cronje was thought to be above such things.

However, his severe trim, the result of a brush with Gary Kirsten's shears, proves that the South African vice-captain is not quite perfect after all. It had begun to look that way. From eagerly feeding the bowling machine for Kim Hughes's rebel Australian tourists as a teenager to collecting litter after nets as Orange Free State's most successful captain, Cronje sometimes seems too good to be true.

Quietly spoken, deep-thinking, charming and modest, he is about as far from the old stereotyped Afrikaner as it is possible to get, and South Africa are fortunate to have someone of his quality at such a significant time.

At 24, Cronje goes into the historic first Test at Lord's tomorrow having already captained South Africa in a Test match and masterminded the epic win at Sydney as the stand-in skipper. He is expected to take over permanently as soon as Kepler Wessels' knees finally give way. Crucially, he also gets it right on the pitch. With three centuries and a Test average of 45 in his last 11 matches, Cronje has already taken over from Wessels as the team's most-prized wicket.

Such a status appeared unlikely when he made his Test entry. One of four youngsters taken to India as observers of the historic matches that signalled South Africa's return from isolation, he made his international debut in the World Cup. He kept his place for the Test in Barbados and the first Test at home to India, but, after 30 runs in four innings, was dropped. Several South Africans, after early failure, have never got back but Cronje was recalled for the third Test, made 135 in nine hours and set up his country's first win of the new era.

'I was very nervous,' he said. 'The first few Tests are very important. You are never sure of your place and are playing as much for yourself as for the team. Before I came back I took five wickets in a one-day international which gave me confidence, then I made the hundred.'

Cronje has been an ever-present since, and is already visiting his sixth country as a South African cricketer. It is a punishing schedule but he is not complaining.

'We are so fortunate. Every day we spend travelling or sitting in the dressing-room moaning about the weather, I think about the players who would have done anything for one Test, one World Cup, one tour of England,' he said.

Cronje has been here before, notably for an unspectacular season in the Lancashire League in 1992. He had a row of ducks but did a lot of bowling, developing well enough to be reliable in limited-overs matches and useful at the longer game.

Like many young South Africans, his appreciation of Test cricket was unrefined when isolation ended. 'I was brought up on the one-day game, but have since realised that Tests are the ultimate,' he said. 'One-day cricket is fantastic to play and watch, but we all now look to the five-day game. It is up to the Test nations to keep it alive, teams have got to go out and try to win games.'

If this sounds at odds with the current captain's more defensive approach it is not a difference Cronje is inclined to pursue. For now, what Kepler says, goes. This is partly because Wessels' pragmatic leadership has proved ideal for an inexperienced side. But also because Cronje reveres his captain.

A generation ago Cronje would, like his father, Ewie, - now a respected cricket administrator - have been a rugby player. Then came the great cricket side of 1970, which first brought cricket to the attention of Afrikaners; in its wake came Wessels. Wessels, 12 years Cronje's senior, preceded him at Bloemfontein's noted Grey College School and into both the Orange Free State and national sides.

'Though I did not meet him until I played against him, the name Kepler Wessels was always around in the school and the city. He was a pioneer in making sport popular among Afrikaners,' Cronje said.

From being his inspiration, Wessels has become Cronje's mentor. 'He is a father figure to me,' Cronje said. 'He is very determined, very gutsy and a shrewd captain - they are qualities I would like to develop in myself.'

Cricket, a sport of little consequence in the Free State in Wessels' youth, is now booming. The province play to 18,000 crowds in a well- appointed new ground. With Allan Donald, Cronje has become their most recognisable sporting star.

His prominence is making him wealthy, but he is aware that it also brings a duty. 'There is a responsibility to perform on and off the field, to be a good example and encourage kids to play cricket and be better humans,' he said.

Such an observation may appear trite but Cronje, another of the side's committed Christians, is genuine. When he adds, with feeling, that 'this is a great time to be South African, the best,' he does not just mean it because they can play international cricket again.

As the interview ends Andrew Hudson, South Africa's opening batsman, comes over and, unsolicited and out of Cronje's hearing, says: 'Our greatest Test wins have come when he has made a hundred. If he makes a century at Lord's, we will win.'

(Photograph omitted)

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