Hansie Cronje: A murky tale of race and match-fixing

The legacy of apartheid still casts a shadow over South Africa's international cricket, as a TV exposé of Hansie Cronje's misdeeds shows, writes Stephen Brenkley

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:58

Towards the end of this month South Africa arrive for their 14th tour of England. As ever, they will be carrying baggage of the sort which has nothing to do with cricket equipment.

It is different from that which used to burden them as representatives of an abhorrent regime which promoted racial inequality and eventually led to their being effectively banished from international cricket for 22 years. But though a further 16 years have now passed since their reinstatement, they remain encumbered.

The squad that arrives on 24 June will be strong and eagerly awaited, with due respect to the New Zealanders, the summer's first tourists. South Africa will not only give England a run for their money but, replete with fast-bowling resources, could well give them the runaround.

Yet lurking in the foreground is still the spectre of race, the possibility that a squad has been chosen not entirely on grounds of ability but because there has to be a balance between white and non-white players. It is a quota system designed to redress years of gross unfairness but it is causing no end of trouble.

The selection process is in a perpetual state of disarray, demonstrated by the kerfuffle over their last touring squad to India, which was marked by bitterness and intrigue. By way of an introduction to how it has arrived at this unpretty pass and as a precursor to the tour, a documentary film on BBC4 tonight examines cricket in South Africa since their readmission to the game's fold, using that as a microcosm of the state of the country.

The Captain and the Bookmaker takes as its primary subject the story of the disgraced late captain of the national team, Hansie Cronje. It relates his truly appalling decision to take money to rig matches, the enormity of which has still not dulled after eight years. Then it examines his deliberate and sometimes successful attempts to lure team-mates into his web, not least non-white players, and suggests what, apart from naked greed, might have led him to do so. In doing this, producer Paul Yule's film also tries to place in context what Cronje's behaviour meant for the country as a whole and where it has led the team now.

Yule said: "In 1999, almost eight years after South Africa had begun playing international cricket again, they could still face West Indies in a Test match with a team consisting entirely of white players. Cronje was a hugely influential captain of that team, but he was also under enormous pressure to play a greater role in the transformation process and to ensure that non-white players were given a chance."

The dramatic implication is that Cronje, more or less forced to take part in a more sympathetic selection policy and one that truly embraced the new South Africa as the rainbow nation, was virtually saying: "If you don't care if we win, then neither do I."

Yule and the writer-narrator, Peter Oborne, believe that Cronje's behaviour was the more insidious because he involved the non-white players whose places in the team were less secure. "There is a marked pattern. The corruption became greater, if it did not begin, after non-white players became a more regular part of the team," said Yule.

The programme is a sequel to Not Cricket: The Basil D'Oliveira Conspiracy, which related the unsavoury dealings which led to the England cricketer's omission from a touring squad to his homeland, South Africa, and ultimately to the country's exclusion from the international sporting fraternity. Together, the films are intended to portray the two South Africas – pre- and post-transformation.

Yule and Oborne have again used a single cricket match as the centrepiece of their investigations, this time the bizarre one-innings Test at Centurion in 2000. The first four days of the match had been blighted by rain. Suddenly on the fifth the sun dawned and Cronje offered to make a game of it. It turned out later that he had been impelled to do so by the bookmaker Marlon Aronstam, who bribed Cronje to fix an outcome with a leather jacket and a bundle of cash.

England won by two wickets in a thrilling finish, but all that mattered to Cronje and Aronstam was that there was a result. Aronstam delivers his version of those events, as does South Africa's coach, Bob Woolmer.

The legacy of Cronje's nefarious activities is still being felt. He died in a plane crash in 2002, which partly but not entirely explains why he is still revered in his country. To an outsider the hold he still exerts over his (white) compatriots is as odd as it is disturbing.

Cricket is probably free of match-fixing – thanks to the safeguards his uncovering by Indian police put in place – but South African cricket selection remains in turmoil. Yule and Oborne probably have conspiracy theories of their own, as amply exhibited in the D'Oliveira film, but the dilemma is all too apparent.

"There may be a quota policy but there are still very few black players in South Africa's team," said Yule. "White players are given more chance to make a go of it. Look at AB De Villiers in the present team, obviously a vastly gifted sportsman but he was given his chance, and then look at Hashim Amla, who is in the team but for a long time was in and out, not trusted with a sequence of games."

These are questions that Graham Smith, South Africa's robust captain, who is almost as powerful now as Cronje once was, will be invited to answer when South Africa arrive. Only three months ago there was a schism among administrators because of the balance of the squad picked to tour India. Charl Langeveldt, a coloured bowler, was selected ahead of Andre Nel, a white bowler.

After claim, counter-claim and recrimination poor Langeveldt withdrew, partly through the suspicion that he might have been selected because of the colour of his skin. That row is still simmering. Tonight's film will do nothing to take it off the boil.

Illustrious career that ended in disgrace and an early death

Wessel Johannes Cronje was born in September 1969 in Bloemfontein. He was called up for the 1992 World Cup and made his Test debut shortly after against the West Indies – South Africa's first Test since readmission. He was made captain for the 1993-94 series against New Zealand.

On 7 April 2000, Delhi police said they had a recording of a conversation between Cronje and Sanjay Chawla, a representative of an Indian betting syndicate, over match-fixing allegations. Four days later, Cronje was sacked as captain after admitting that he had not been "entirely honest" and banned for life in October.

On 1 June 2002, his scheduled flight grounded, he hitched a ride on a cargo flight which crashed into the Outeniqua mountains. Cronje and the two pilots were killed instantly. In 2004 he was voted the 11th-greatest South African.

Not Cricket 2: The Captain and the Bookmaker, is on BCC4 tonight at 9pm.

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