Disgraced Cronje may play again

As Indian police widen inquiry, South Africa implausibly is beginning to forgive
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As the Indian police extended their investigations into the Hansie Cronje match fixing affair yesterday, South Africans unexpectedly began to forgive their disgraced former captain. In a surge of public sympathy, which was almost as shocking as the original allegations of corrupt behaviour, it was being suggested that Cronje might yet play for the country again. Only a few days ago he looked washed up after admitting taking money from money from a bookmaker.

The independent inquiry prompted by his self-confessed "error of judgement" - he took $8,200, or 50,000 rand - is likely to start within a fortnight. Before that, it is probable that the International Cricket Council will accede to a request from the England and Wales Cricket Board for a summit conference of all the major cricketing nations.

They have constantly rejected calls for a global inquiry into match rigging and illegal betting involving players but such has been the opprobrium heaped on them last week that they recognise the need to do something. Imran Khan, the great former Pakistan all-rounder joined in yesterday when he said: "I think it's so serious an issue that it's tempting to say that all international cricket should be suspended while it is sorted out."

Bowing to that type of broadside, the ICC's chief executive, David Richards, has conceded that the game has been seriously hurt by the episode and the request for a summit made by ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, "was under consid-eration." It is hard to see how they can avoid one. South Africa, however, is in conciliatory mood towards the man who until five days ago was an exemplar of all that was good in cricket and society.

"Support for Hansie is certainly growing," said Graham Abrahams, spokesman for Ngconde Balfour, the country's minister of sport. "It goes across all genders and races. It's recognised that like everybody else he has human frailties. The guy has made an important contribution and you can't throw everything overboard for one aberration."

Abrahams' comments implied that South Africans were prepared to believe Cronje's repeated denials that he has been involved in match-fixing and that the money he received was connected with the recent one-day series in India which detectives there have been investigating and insist they have 14 tapes of evidence.

"Hansie was getting to the age where he might have been thinking of giving up anyway," said Abrahams. "But I'm sure he'll play cricket again. It's a tall question to answer if he'll play for South Africa again, but you never know. Perhaps he may be there in the 2003 World Cup."

A display of ministerial compassion does not mean Cronje has been entirely exonerated. It is expected that the head of the inquiry into the charges will be announced early next week and convene his panel within days submitting an initial report by the end of May. Judge Albie Sachs, who has sat on previous ICC panels and who initially declined the chairmanship, will be approached again.

Abrahams said that many allegations were probably unfounded. "There is one for every journalist covering the case," he said. But he insisted that nothing would be covered up. He said the suggestion being much touted - that Cronje actually took the money in connection with the remarkable fifth match of the Test series against England - would be thoroughly examined.

England won the match after it was reduced to one innings a side following three days of rain. Never before had innings been forfeited in Test cricket and without it a draw was inevitable. Cronje's denials of any wrongdoing in India have elicited the hypothesis that he was paid simply for trying to ensure the Fifth Test was not a draw, the odds-on result, and thus saving bookies millions.

The pressure elsewhere is undiminished. The police in New Delhi who sparked the scandal by their announcement of taped evidence were so convinced of making further progress that detectives were told to stay in the five cities where the one-day matches between India and South Africa took place.

Ajay Raj Sharma, the New Delhi police commissioner, said: "This appears to be a very big international racket. At the moment we don't now how far it stretches, it could be as far as Australia, Dubai, London, South Africa, who's to say?" He added in a phrase redolent of many used in the past few days: "So far we have only touched the tip of the iceberg."

Sharma said he was looking for two Mr Bigs, one in India, one in South Africa. He did not expect to name either any more South African players in addition to the four already charged in absence - Cronje, Nicky Boje, Herschelle Gibbs and Pieter Strydom - or any Indian players. "But some facts may emerge about others," he said. "This case has shocked me. I could not imagine that there could be such goings on at this level." A week ago nor could most of world cricket. Now nobody doubts that Sharma and his men may have unearthed a cancer not in imminent prospect of being cured.

Additional reporting by Jean Macfarlane in New Delhi and Andy Colquhoun in Cape Town.

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