Cronje: A tragic end

G. VISWANATH

HANSIE CRONJE was a man of many parts. He was endowed with all the cricketing credentials. He was a capable, and courageous batsman, an efficient, competent and clever bowler, a fieldsman par excellence with superb legs and a safe pair of hands to throw and catch and a smart and intelligent captain whose mind went as far as to contrive a result in a Test match against England for the sake of the Rand-paying spectators.

Although the South Africans played the game in a methodical manner — their coach for five years Bob Woolmer described it as `scientific' — Cronje never offered a view that he was the typical South African mean fellow, ruthless and merciless like the other pros such as Clive Rice and Mike Procter.

A handsome man with personality and charisma, he was the face of South African cricket, and most recognised and popular South African in the outside world after Nelson Mandela. He was on the threshold of having accorded greatness and placed amongst the pantheon of South African cricketers . But cricket, a game of glorious uncertainties and a great leveller, called Cronje's bluff. Cronje was in contact with betting syndicates for underhand dealings, misled his South African fellow cricketers and brought disrepute to the game.

He confessed to taking money for fixing matches and became a fallen hero before his demise in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances atop a mountain following a cargo-plane crash near his home in George in the Eastern Cape while returning from Bloemfontein where he was born.

After South Africa's return as full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 1992, the episode involving Cronje was the second biggest event that occupied centre stage in that country.

Of course, the first event was a happy one for the people of the rainbow nation as South Africa was back in the Test fold. The second one concerning Cronje broke their spirits.

Cronje's contribution to South African cricket was immense ever since the baton of leadership was passed on to him after the short reign of Jimmy Cook and Kepler Wessels.

He was a young man marked to lead `New South Africa' in the 1990s. The first signs were evident when Orange Free State made him captain when he was 21. Three years later he stepped into the shoes of the injured Wessels during the away series in Australia. At the age of 25 he was officially named South Africa's captain.

Dr. Ali Bacher, a man who backed Cronje to the hilt till the day the latter confessed to having taken $(U.S.) 1,30,000 from betting syndicates, was in the vanguard projecting Cronje as a man on whose strong shoulders would rest the future of South African cricket. It did not take long for the cricketing community to realise why Cronje was admired and held in high esteem. He was regarded as a champion leader.

Cronje played the game with tremendous resolve and pride. He enjoyed creating and facing challenging situations and formed a successful combination with coach Bob Woolmer. On occasions he crossed the line as when he slammed a stump on the door while returning to the dressing room in Sydney, argued with umpire Steve Randall when Mark Waugh was not given out (run out) and manhandled the team's liaison manager during the supper break of a one-day international in Mumbai in 1996.

But Cronje took his team far, beating every international team, except the Australians. He would have got another opportunity to have a go at Steve Waugh's team, but the betting scandal shut the door on him.

He also led South Africa in two World Cups, but after near emphatic performances in the 1996 event in Pakistan, his team failed to overcome the brilliance of Brian Lara and Roger Harper in the quarter-final; three years later, his team was done in not once, but twice by Steve Waugh's Australians in England.

Cronje played 68 Tests, 53 as captain and was successful in 27 of them. He scored 3714 runs and took 43 wickets in Tests and scored 5565 runs and took 114 wickets in 188 one-day internationals. He was the longest serving South African captain a feat he was likely to extend well into the new millennium before the betting scandal and his association with people like Sanjay Chawla and Mukesh Gupta ruined his career and tarnished his image.

The United Cricket Board (UCB) not only banned him from playing cricket, but also prevented him from taking part in activities related to the game. A court of South Africa upheld the UCB's decision and the ICC, too, endorsed the UCB's decision.

Cronje then spent two years with his good friends like Woolmer and Jonty Rhodes. He was trying to give some semblance of meaning to his life when he met with a tragic end. He was only 32.

He had a lot more to give to South African cricket, but fate played a cruel joke on him. As he told the enquiry commission: "I tried to live a Christian life and walk the way the Lord wanted me to walk. I allowed Satan and the world to dictate terms to me.''

Tributes poured in after his demise. Nelson Mandela said in a statement: "Here was a young man sincerely and with dignity rebuilding his life after the setback he suffered a while ago. The manner in which he was doing that, rebuilding his life and public career, promised to make him once more a role model of how one deals with adversity.''

But more than his best friends like Rhodes and Allan Donald, a man who liked Cronje was Henry Williams who along with Herschelle Gibbs was said to have been given money.

"I am happy I made up with him,'' said Williams who had a drink with Cronje a few days before the plane crash. There were people, including Steve Waugh, who wanted Cronje to be forgiven. But he was not, as the establishment turned away from him.