Now Cronjegate hears of Crookes' bafflement

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The Independent Online

As Hansie Cronje seeks to hide behind semantics and lawyerly gobbledegook, the weight of circumstantial evidence that he accepted a bribe is mounting. The latest comes from the off-spinner Derek Crookes, who claims he was "amazed" and "surprised" when Cronje asked him to open the bowling in the fifth one-day international between South Africa and India in Nagpur recently.

The name may be unfortunate in the context, but Crookes did not suspect anything untoward at the time, despite being told by the South African captain earlier in the series that he would never be considered for the new ball. Police in Delhi say they have transcripts of recorded conversations made allegedly between Cronje and a bookmaker, saying he would open the bowling with Crookes in the final one-day match.

"I love a challenge and even though it was a tiny ground with a lightning fast outfield, I looked forward to it at the time," said Crookes, who admitted his mind had been racing ever since "Cronjegate" unfurled a week ago. Against Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, two of the finest players of spin in world cricket, it was probably a challenge too far and Crookes' six opening overs cost 53 runs.

Once focused, the eye of suspicion begins to see all manner of deceits, and question marks are now apparently being raised over a series of one-day matches in Kenya which South Africa played last September, as well as the recent final against Pakistan in Sharjah.

In the latter match, Crookes was a last-minute participant, when he replaced Gary Kirsten. In the match, Cronje used seven bowlers including Crookes, but not Nicky Boje, who, until Crookes replaced Kirsten, was playing as a spinner.

Perhaps no more would have been thought about the matter, except that Crookes was mysteriously withdrawn from the attack after five overs with decent figures of 1-20. He did not bowl again as Pakistan made a match-winning 263-6, a total that proved too much for South Africa.

As threads begin to unravel all round the world, others such as the former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin are being accused of taking the bookies' backhanders. Chris Lewis, an England all-rounder now with Leicestershire, has told a Sunday newspaper that he knows of three England players who allegedly took backhanders, though declines to name the trio.

Citing sports promoter Ashim Kheterpal as his source, Lewis claims the three are "household names" and close friends. "I nearly fell off my chair when he told me who the players were," said Lewis, who added that the amounts involved ran into thousands of pounds.

Lewis's claims were first aired last year during the series against New Zealand, when he claims he was approached by Kheterpal and offered £300,000 to get Alec Stewart and Alan Mullally to drop catches and to bowl wide of the wicket in a Test match.

In the current climate, it is difficult to discount anything. For that reason fact must be separated from innuendo and Lewis and others who have come out of the woodwork with their tales of intrigue, such as Ray Illingworth and Tony Greig, must begin to name names, if only to the International Cricket Council.

While it is easy to see why the weather-stricken Centurion Test would be a target for the inquiry in South Africa - any bookmaker offering the draw would have been sitting on a huge liability after three days of rain - it is difficult to believe other Tests are involved. Unless the level of sophistication by which players can manipulate matches or betting markets has increased, one-day cricket is probably the only conduit.