Memories of South Africa's flawed icon return to haunt a nation

World Cup Diary

Stephen Brenkley
Sunday 23 February 2003 01:00

Before this eighth World Cup is done, the canonisation of Hansie Cronje may be complete. The presence of devil's advocates seems merely to be hurrying the process.

Such was Cronje's hallowed reputation in this country that it was always likely his name would hang over the tournament despite his involvement in match-fixing. When he was killed in a plane crash last year that became certain.

The present South African team simply will not forget him. Before the tournament began, Allan Donald and Jonty Rhodes, who both seem willing to ignore the backhanders, dedicated South Africa's progress in the event to Cronje.

Then came the unexpectedly woeful start. Pundits and fans formed a disorderly queue to lambast Cronje's successor, Shaun Pollock. It took the foolhardy innocent, Herschelle Gibbs, to put into words what they were thinking although they dared not speak its name.

Gibbs said in an aside at the launch of his book that the team still missed Cronje and Donald said something similar on an Australian radio station. This was all the fuel that was required to stoke the Hansie fires.

In no time, he was being lamented as a lost genius with nary lip service to the fact that he turned out to be a Christian hypocrite, a natural leader who betrayed his gifts and his game, and took his secrets to the grave.

It prompted the UCBSA to issue an edict banning talk of the flawed icon. But Wessel Johannes Cronje haunts the home team. It remains a worry that South Africa will put their hesitant form behind them, come back to win the Cup only for some fool to dedicate the victory to Cronje.

Bowled over by play

At least, W J C does not rate a mention in an excellent comedy revue being staged in conjunction with the tournament, It's Just Not Cricket. Written by the prolific South African, Paul Slabolepszy, it is endlessly witty about the game and confirms that a sports nut is a sports nut no matter what his breeding.

The piece loosely involves the efforts of three drinking pals to acquire tickets for the World Cup. Eventually foiled, they must watch the games with a few sharpeners at home. But – and who has not been here? – they dare not switch on the television in case they contribute to the loss of their team's wickets.

It brought the full house down in Johannesburg the other night. Thus, there might after all be a difference in fans: it is difficult to envisage a well-observed five-act frippery about the greatest of games going down a storm in Britain.

England v the world

Word is getting around that England are surly, po-faced and rude, which is surely some mistake. Nasser Hussain and his lads are actually a bunch of sweethearts who perform lifesaving operations on paupers in their spare time.

Only kidding, but the chaps are keenly aware of their reputation on the broader public relations front and want to redress the balance. Last Sunday, for instance, at their match against Holland, they entertained local fan, 11-year-old Bradley Smith, as part of a charity appeal. Bradley watched the game from the dressing room and went away with lots of goodies.

Then, on their departure from Port Elizabeth, the entire squad posed for a photo with the attentive hotel catering staff. Smiles all round? Well, it was 7am.

This is the trouble with developing a siege mentality: when you start thinking the world is against you, that is what happens.

Crossed lines

Nick Knight, the England opener, was kept well informed about team injuries and media arrangements all last week. Media manager Andrew Walpole has taken to using the voicemail system which automatically leaves messages on several mobiles at a time. But technology is only as good as the humans operating it. Walpole had confused Knight with a reporter on tour, also called Nick, and only became aware of the confusion when the batsman told him that he had better things to do with his time than attend England press conferences. Nor is he alone.

Forward defensive

And another thing about England. The operations manager, Phil Neale, was unkindly rubbished in one newspaper the other day for using England tours to brush up his sun-tan, which is indeed enviable. England have hit back. In Neale's four years in the job they have not lost one bag. So there.

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