Paradox of the icon with far-reaching flaws

Stephen Brenkley@stephenbrenkley
Tuesday 10 December 2013 04:18

Even now, two years on, it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of Hansie Cronje's crimes against cricket. He was the captain of South Africa, he was an icon as a man as well as a cricketer, he was a Christian and an apparently natural leader, he was idolised in a country which craves heroes, he was revered by his players.

In the spring of 2000 he was revealed to have taken bribes to fix the outcome of matches. Cronje had been on the take and he had encouraged others in his team to take with him. It was a stunning violation of trust that reverberated around the world and has never been satisfactorily explained.

Cronje, who died in a plane crash yesterday at the age of 32, has now taken the reasons for his actions to the grave. The game he duped has changed forever.

In a perverse way, maybe Cronje did us all a favour. It was increasingly well known that matches were being fixed by illegal Indian bookmakers through the simple expedient of bribing players. One-day internationals, it was routinely being suggested, were frequently exploited. But nobody was doing anything. The International Cricket Council barely paid lip service to the scandal.

Cronje was discovered by accident. Indian police involved in another inquiry suddenly found themselves confronted with tapes of his mobile phone calls to his contacts. At first the world was incredulous. Hansie? Not Hansie. Anybody but Hansie. It slowly emerged that everything the Indian cops said was right. And more.

Cronje coughed, but not much. He resigned in disgrace. A commission of inquiry was immediately instituted in his homeland, the ICC at last realised that they had to act. Slowly, inexorably, the horrible truth was partially revealed. It has never been found out how many players were involved. Loads was the nearest guess. But at last something was done.

The strange thing was what happened to Cronje. To all intents and purposes he left public life, but opprobrium was not long heaped on him. South Africa appeared to go into a kind of denial. The King Commission convened but never got to grips with the depth of his wrongdoing. Cronje ran for cover behind lawyers. A deal was struck.

The message emanating from the republic was that he was guilty but it was no big deal. Hansie was still their hero, they still needed heroes. He made appearances on the lecture circuit, offering motivational advice. It was proposed, though not formally, that he still had a role to play in cricket.

Briefly, it was mooted that he might be one of the ambassadors for the World Cup in South Africa. Ali Bacher, the former chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, who had long been his champion, stated that one day he would have a role to play again.

In the rest of the world this did not wash. Cronje had betrayed the loyalty of his fellows. He had been greedy, he had besmirched a great sport, made a laughing stock of one the great tenets: it isn't cricket.

But only yesterday, in an interview with The Independent, Alec Stewart said that Cronje was a great cricketer who still had something to offer, coaching kids or the like. Kids, you might think, were the last people to be put in the way of a man who had shown so little contrition.

Cronje was born in Bloemfontein, went to Grays College there and was head boy. A natural leader from the start. He was from the liberal wing of Afrikanerdom. When he was chosen to replace Kepler Wessels as South African captain, nobody was too surprised. But if it was a natural elevation even then there were suggestions from those who detected flaws that it would end in tears. Cronje always liked the colour of money.

He had left Bloemfontein for a palatial home in George on the Southern Cape. But recently he had landed a job as a financial consultant with an agricultural equipment firm. It was said they had been impressed by one of his motivational talks. The job was based in Johannesburg. He and his wife had agreed to make the move north. It was a fairly dramatic shift for them, perhaps a fresh start. It was not a sinecure, it was said, but a proper job.

In view of what he did, it is difficult to assess Cronje as a cricketer. But he made 68 Test appearances for South Africa, 53 as captain, and 188 more in one-day internationals, 138 of them as captain. Many of the players he led were still in touch with him. They could not forget what he had done for them, as the batsman, Gary Kirsten, said yesterday.

On reflection, Hansie Cronje must have been made up of paradoxes. A god- fearing thief, a leader who betrayed his men. When the plane in which he was travelling crashed yesterday he took a murky past with him. We will never know it all now.

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