Hansie Cronje: 10 years on

A decade after disgraced former captain Hansie Cronje was killed in a plane crash, Mark Chapman visits South Africa to learn how those affected by his actions now view his life – and death

Mark Chapman
Friday 01 June 2012 21:55

My feelings before beginning my trip to the Rainbow Nation to research a radio programme I made on Hansie Cronje, 10 years after his death, were quite simplistic and quite representative of cricket fans not of a South African persuasion. Cronje had been uncovered as a cheat and justly punished and, although his death was untimely and tragic, it hadn't created a wave of sympathy in me for a man who had let the sport down. As I flew above the mountain range, upon which his body lay after the crash, my journey coming to an end, I wasn't sure what I felt or what I believed anymore but I did know I had spent the last few days delving into one of the most astonishing sporting stories of our time. A story played out on the tapestry of South African history and politics, with Christianity very much to the fore as a religious man was brought down by one of the seven deadly sins: greed.

I am sitting in a small passenger plane as we come over the mountains by George Airport. It is a clear, sunny afternoon and, despite not being a nervous flyer, I feel particularly uncomfortable because my journey from Johannesburg to George is the identical one to Cronje's last, except he was strapped into the back of a cargo plane; the only passenger. The mountains are foreboding and unforgiving and have claimed other planes over the years aside from Cronje's...

The fall of apartheid and having Nelson Mandela as President makes it a lot easier for people to forgive in South Africa. For a lot of the British media it's been very difficult for them to accept the forgiveness. Frans Cronje is something of an expert in absolution. As a deeply religious man it is something that comes naturally to him. As the brother of Hansie Cronje he has had to be. Hansie Cronje: cricketer, captain, Afrikaaner, leader, hero, Christian, wealthy, cheat, manipulator and psychopath. All words that were used about him in while I travelled around South Africa.

Cronje's death is seen by most, and I see no reason to disagree with them, as a tragic accident. A few, though, see it as something more sinister. "Very fishy" is how Clive Rice described it to me. The former Nottinghamshire captain takes into account the appalling weather in the George area as Cronje's plane came into land, and bears in mind that certain landing signals were not working at the airport, but feels the company that Cronje kept outweighs the scientific evidence. "Certain people needed him out. Whether it was one, two or 15 people that were going to die it didn't matter," he tells me. "Hansie was the one that was going to have to go and if they could cover it up as a plane crash then that was fine."

Despite captaining his country, and being at one stage "only second to Mandela in terms of popularity" according to his brother, Cronje allowed himself to be led down a path of corruption and cheating. "He always had an adventurous part of him that was inquisitive." says Frans. "Playing cricket year in year out, living in hotels and airports I think becomes tedious and boring after a while. Maybe a bit of boredom set in and maybe this was something a bit interesting."

Whether Cronje was bored on South Africa's tour to India in 1996 is not documented but the offers he received most definitely are: $30,000 would be his if the team lost wickets on the final day of the third Test to ensure an Indian win. Reasoning that this would happen without him having to speak to his players, Cronje said nothing. The wickets duly fell, South Africa lost and Cronje received the money for, in his own words, "effectively doing nothing". On the same tour Cronje put an offer of $200,000 to his players to lose a one-day benefit match. Some walked out, others stayed and suggested he asked for more from his bookmaker contact. Dave Richardson, the new chief executive of the ICC, was in that meeting. "At the time it did not seem a big issue," he said in 2002, "it was a novelty."

Such flippancy cannot be found Henry Williams. The 44-year-old is wary as we shake hands at Boland Cricket Club, 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. Despite agreeing to the interview, he seems keen to point out that he doesn't want to rake over old ground. He seems nervous, sad. "I will not tell you who said what to whom, I don't want to bring back those memories." The sky is blue, the sun hovers over the nearby mountains and yet Williams admits there is a cloud permanently over his head because in 2000 he was persuaded to underperform in a one-day international. He was meant to go for more than 50 runs when he bowled his 10 overs against India. Cronje also told Herschelle Gibbs to score fewer than 20 and the side would get no more than 270. Not one of those three scenarios ended up happening but, once Cronje confessed, Williams and Gibbs were in trouble and banned for six months each. Gibbs came back to forge a successful international career, Williams never played for his country again.

"It feels like when you walk people are staring at you and it was bad," he says. "It was stressful. My mum and dad didn't bring me up like that. 'How could that be? That's not my child?'" He looks into the distance only returning my gaze when I bring up the subject of his own faith. "I'll forgive," he says, "but it's a permanent scar, you can't forget it. Hansie never, ever spoke to me about this. He's dead now and it still worries me."

What worried many in the new South Africa was that the two players Cronje had selected to be part of his plan were players of colour. Any suggestion of racism is refuted, though, by those that knew him and worked with him. Plenty tell stories of the times he drove for hours to coach in townships with no publicity and, more importantly, no remuneration.

Marlon Aronstam dialled Hansie Cronje's mobile on 17 January 2000. He told him he had a negative image and was perceived as conservative. They had never spoken before. Aronstam, a bookmaker, was cold-calling the South African captain and yet within hours he was in a hotel room with him and offering 500,000 rand to a charity of Cronje's choice and "a gift". All Cronje had to do was to persuade Nasser Hussain and England to make a game of it on the final day of a Test ruined by bad weather. Both sides were to forfeit an innings to give England a run chase. The following morning Hussain, unaware of the meeting, agreed. Alec Stewart remembers a "tough run chase" as England won by two wickets. He doesn't remember his exact score but does remember the "bitter, bitter taste" when they found out just months later what Cronje had done. Aronstam didn't remember too much either, as he sat across from me in a central London hotel room, more out of convenience, I feel, than the passing of time.

"Cronje loved cricket but the money was a bonus. Without money the world doesn't run," said the man who had asked for FA Cup final tickets in exchange for speaking to me. Thick-set physically and with even thicker skin metaphorically, did he feel guilty, I asked. "Nah, I don't believe I did anything wrong," he says.

Cronje knew he had sinned. "I could no longer live with myself or with the situation I had created," he told the King Commission, an inquiry set up by the government into match-fixing. There were around 40 people subpoenaed to give evidence. Cronje's statement was the only one televised. He ended his evidence in tears, a crumpled, broken, exhausted man who had to be helped out of the room. "An act", according to Professor Tim Noakes, who had been the national side's sports scientist during the mid-Nineties. With passions running high at the time of the revelations he had called Cronje a "genetic rogue", but told me how he regretted that. Instead he used the word "psychopath". As I said that that sounded harsher than his original description and he explained that it was because Cronje displayed all the characteristics of a psychopath: "no remorse, no conscience and charm".

The nature of an article like this, or the programme I made for 5 Live, is that I reach a conclusion. But even now, a week after returning from South Africa, I am not sure what to think or what, or rather who, to believe. It would be naive to think Cronje was alone in being involved. There have been others who have been found guilty but I am convinced many more have got away with it. I have started to look at scorecards of old games or run-outs in recent IPL matches and question their validity.

When I mentioned this to Stewart at Trent Bridge last Sunday he showed me a scorecard of a Benson & Hedges game from 1993. He hit 95 and Graham Thorpe a century as Surrey chased 237 to beat Lancashire. They collapsed from 212 for 1 to 230 all out. Very fishy to borrow a phrase from Clive Rice. Explained by Stewart as "the brilliance of Wasim Akram and the accuracy of Ian Austin". My fear from the past week is that I start doubting one of the most important things in my life, one of the things that gives me so much pleasure: sport.

As for Cronje himself. The South Africans I met whether black or white, rich or poor, said to me: "He was a great man who made some mistakes".

Frans Cronje prefers to remember the Tests he played with his brother in the garden in Bloemfontein than the man who fell into depression after the King Commission. There are tears in his eyes as he talks. "He felt like he'd let everyone down. Madiba [Nelson Mandela] being the first one."

We are talking in the offices of Francois Pienaar. A World Cup winner, a hero, a South African sporting icon. The irony is not lost on any of us. "When I get on a plane," says Pienaar, "invariably there will be a black gentleman sitting and as I walk past he will say, 'Good morning, my captain', and I just go 'Wow'. It is such a nice feeling. It is incredible."

There were no such platitudes as Cronje strapped himself into the back of a plane for his final journey. A final journey that maybe he had foreseen a decade earlier when writing in a Christian magazine. He had rediscovered his religion and built his relationship with God after being in a car accident that had killed a small girl. He wrote: "We are constantly travelling on the road and in the air, I now have perfect peace that should I die in a plane crash, I would go to heaven".

"Is he in heaven?" I ask Frans. "Yes." He takes a sip of coffee. "You don't have to be perfect to go to heaven."

You can listen to the BBC Radio 5 live Sport Special, 'The Hansie Cronje Story' with Mark Chapman, via the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the podcast from the 5 live website'.

Hansie Cronje: Fact file

Born 25 September, 1969, Bloemfontein

1987 Makes first-class debut for Orange Free State in Johannesburg

1992 First Test appearance, against West Indies in Bridgetown

1994 Made captain of national side

1996 Leads side to 1-0 home win over England in first series since return to world cricket

2000 South Africa beat England 2-1 but lose final Test as Cronje for-feits innings. Charged with match-fixing by Indian police after an ODI series. Admits to not being "entirely honest" and approaching team-mates about underperforming. Banned for life.

2001 Fails in appeal and moves into financial market.

2002 Killed in a plane crash in Western Cape.

Test statistics

Matches 68 Runs 3,714

Ave 36.41 100s 6 50s 23

Record as captain

P53 W27 D15 L11 Win % 51

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