Whenever there is a mention of the name Hansie Cronje, the sentence more often than not comes with the phrase “despite match-fixing”. Even Wikipedia has the following line about the former South African skipper - “He was voted the 11th greatest South African in 2004 despite having been banned from cricket for life due to his role in a match-fixing scandal.”
On 25 September 2016, Wessel Johannes “Hansie” Cronje would have turned 47. But much like his life any discussion about him is about “ifs and buts”. So, Hansie would have turned 47 today had he not died in a tragic plane crash in 2002. He would have probably been the greatest captain ever in the history of cricket if he had not got involved in match-fixing. For records sake, in the 53 Tests that he led South Africa, he won 27 and lost 11. In ODIs his record was even better with a victory in 99 of the 138 matches.
Hansie had let his fans down
But the fact of the matter is that he was involved in match-fixing and he is no longer with us today. As the man himself had said, “There is no excuse and I have let the team, the fans and the game down.”
Yes, indeed he had let the fans and the gentleman’s game down. Here was a national icon, the face of post-apartheid South Africa and a man who was even admired by Nelson Mandela for the way in which he used to lead his team. The cricketing world was his stage and he was easily one of the most respected men on the cricket field.
The mercurial rise and the captaincy
But much before getting greedy for money, he had been a good batsman, a decent part-time bowler and an exceptional captain. Born in 1969 in Bloemfontein, Hansie was an excellent sportsman. He represented the Orange Free State Province in cricket and rugby at school level.
Later on, Hansie decided to focus on cricket and made his First-class debut for Orange Free State in 1988 at a young age of 18. His rise to the top was as rapid as his fall. In less than three years he was made the captain of the state team in the season of 1990-91. Riding on his good domestic performances he was selected in the South African national cricket team for the 1992 ODI World Cup.
In the next series against the West Indies, he made his Test debut. And when India toured South Africa in 1992-93, he made the first of his six Test centuries. His innings helped the Proteas register their first Test win since readmission.
Soon, he was named as the vice-captain to Kepler Wessels for the Australian tour. The fact that he was the youngest member of the squad then, did not deter the selectors from naming him as the vice-captain and it speaks volumes about his leadership skills.
An injury to captain Wessels gave birth to “Hansie - The captain” in the third test at Adelaide and by 1994 he was made the permanent captain of the national team. It was quite an achievement for someone who had made his international debut hardly two years back.
Over the next six years, Cronje made the South African team world-beaters and his partnership with coach Bob Woolmer (who himself was found mysteriously murdered during the 2007 World Cup in West Indies) was instrumental in this success.
The Leather Jacket Test
In January 2000, at the pinnacle of Hansie’s captaincy stint took place the infamous Centurion test which was later on labelled as the “leather jacket Test”. With three days lost due to rain, the Test was heading for a boring draw. However, Hansie along with his English counterpart Nasser Hussain decided to forfeit two innings and they reached an agreement after which England had to chase 249 runs in 76 overs. It opened up the match and what would have been a dull 5th day turned out to be an excellent advertisement for Test cricket. England eventually won the match by 2 wickets.
Never before had Test match cricket witnessed such bizarre declarations. After the match, Hansie had said, “It hurts to lose - we lost a 14-match unbeaten run because of this - but it was a fabulous game in the end and people deserve to be entertained.”
But little did people know that this entertainment had come at the cost of 53,000 rand and a leather jacket which Hansie had received from bookmaker - Marlon Aronstam. It was unthinkable that a person like Hansie Cronje could get involved in something like match-fixing.
Events that shook the cricket world
So, when in 2000 the Delhi police first came up with the report that Hansie was involved in match-fixing no one including yours truly took it seriously. Hansie rubbished off the allegations as baseless. But just four days after the accusations were made, in a 3 AM call to Ali Bacher, Cricket South Africa chief; Hansie confessed that he had not been “entirely honest”.
His confessions shook the entire cricketing world and a period of suspicion & mistrust ensued. In his trial in front of the Kings commission, Hansie had said that he was driven by greed & stupidity and the lure of easy money. He also went on to say how he had cheated even his own teammates - Herschelle Gibbs & Henry Williams whose shares he had tried to cut in the match-fixing money.
Also read: The Life and Times of Hansie Cronje
Hansie was banned from all forms of cricket and from being a national hero he was reduced to nothing but a man who had betrayed the nation. Slowly, Hansie moved ahead in a life without cricket. But cricket was never the same after Cronje-gate. Every wicket, every shot and every match indeed was seen with suspicious eyes.
The game of cricket had lost its credibility and Hansie was portrayed as the villain behind this downfall. It was thought that if Hansie can do such a thing then no one in cricket was immune to these corrupt practices. But was he the real reason behind the ills of cricket? Or was he just a pawn and there are still many big sharks left in the game. These are questions which are still unanswered even 16 years after this scandal initially broke out. But coming back to Hansie, can the world of cricket forgive him?
Will he or has he been forgiven?
To many, he will always remain a great captain and a man who ‘made a mistake’. As his long-time teammate Andrew Hudson said, “He will be remembered as a great captain and a great person, But overall, there was more good than bad in the man.”
Not everyone will be as generous as Hudson. Kepler Wessels who did know a thing or two about Hansie had once said, “I can't speak about this. It's gone. He's dead now. Leave it alone for the good of the game and his family. All I can say is that cricket must remain on its guard against match-fixing for as long as the game is played.”
Hansie himself had said to his coach Bob Woolmer some time after the entire match-fixing episode came out that he knew what he did was wrong, he knew he took money but he never fixed a match. As per Woolmer, there were tears in Hansie’s eyes as he spoke and the power of that statement could only be understood if one was there at that time.
We will probably never know the truth behind these statements. But if and when it actually happens as Hansie Cronje had himself once said, "The truth will be the winner. ”