Hansie Cronje: leader, liar, legend

Hansie Cronje of South Africa

1996, Kanpur

South Africa, 460 behind, needed to survive ten hours against Anil Kumble and company on a crumbling track. The series was locked at 1-1 and for the decider, the South Africans were exposed on a rank turner where the ball scarcely rose above the knee.

The collapse began with Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs playing down the wrong line and the fate of the Proteas was sealed when Daryll Cullinan took on Sachin Tendulkar’s arm at mid-off. Reeling at 29/3, South Africa went on to register their first series defeat since losing to West Indies in April 1992.

It was an improbable target and South Africa never had a chance on a wicket that turned a square mile. The win helped India maintain their unbeaten streak at home and kicked off a glorious start for Sachin Tendulkar as the captain of India.

Four years later, the Kanpur Test match carved itself into cricket history after a shocking confession.

2000, Johannesburg

“On the evening of the third day of the third Test against India at Kanpur, I received a call from Mohammed Azharuddin… He called me to a room in the hotel and introduced me to Mukesh Gupta (‘MK’). MK asked me if we would give wickets away on the last day of the Test to ensure that we lost. He asked me to speak to the other players and gave me approximately U.S. $30,000 in cash to do so. I led him to believe that I would. This seemed an easy way to make money… I did not speak to any of the other players and did nothing to influence the match…. However, we lost the Test. I effectively received money for doing nothing…” – Hansie Cronje’s testimony in front of the King’s Commission.

Wessel Johannes Cronje, better known as Hansie Cronje, is one of the most controversial characters in the history of cricket and was one of those rare leaders who lead his team with conviction, courage and innovation.

Born in the Orange Free State, Hansie Cronje was groomed as a cricketer at Bloemfontein’s Grey College, the very place where he was cremated after his death. Along with the fielding maestro Jonty Rhodes, Cronje made his first class debut for Free State in the 1987/88 season and became the captain within three seasons.

His meteoric rise in domestic cricket earned him a Test cap against the West Indies in 1992 and he went on to score his maiden Test hundred against the Indians later that year. His 135 against India remained his highest score over a career of 68 Test matches.

He was one of the pioneers of the slog-sweep, and as a batsman, he was exceptional against spin bowling. However, his technique fell short against the faster men and the likes of Darren Gough, Javagal Srinath and Danny Morrison exploited his weakness to full effect. His inability to play fast bowlers didn’t let him attain greater heights as a batsman but Hansie Cronje made his mark with his leadership.

Hansie Cronje was an extraordinary captain and he stamped himself on South African cricket as a leader. Along with Bob Woolmer as South African coach, Cronje moulded the art of cricket into a science and showed the world the importance of strategies and innovation.

Cronje and Woolmer were united in 1994 and the results were devastating. South Africa lost six games on the trot to Pakistan and Australia and then went on to lose the first Test against New Zealand at the Wanderers. Then came the turn-around and South Africa bounced back to win the series, thus starting the era that saw a fusion between technology and cricket.

Cronje and Woolmer revolutionized the entire approach of the game. Computer analysis made its way into the game and the “laptop-coach” introduced the reverse sweep to the world. During the next five years, Cronje and Woolmer went on to rule the cricket world and won 10 Test series out of the 15 that South Africa played.

Even in the coloured-clothing format, the coach-captain duo aggregated a mind boggling 73% success rate. Woolmer became the ultimate cricket scientist and Cronje established himself as a tough, uncompromising leader.

The front pages of the South African morning newsp

But as they say, the higher they go, the harder they fall.

Hansie Cronje fell and broke into pieces.

The 2000 tour of India unearthed a series of scandals that changed the face of the game forever. Cricket ceased to be regarded a game of talent, skill and glorious uncertainties. Instead, it became a sequence of suspicious events which were not as random as the spectators were led to believe.

Was it only poor judgment from the batsman when he shouldered arms and got knocked over? Why did the non-striker set off for a disastrous single? Was that catch easier to hold than to drop?

Questions that never existed surfaced, thanks to a late night confession letter received by Dr. Ali Bacher. Hansie Cronje stripped the game of its innocence, forever. He tarnished a country that fought back from the darkness of apartheid and was welcomed back into the fraternity as everyone’s favourite cricketing nation.

The image of him in white flannels leading his side on with square-jawed swagger was replaced by a black suit, puffy eyes, fatigued shoulders and an aura of guilt. He resisted first but for a man who led from the front, lying wasn’t an option. He wobbled, weaved, managed a weak smile but then gave in. His world collapsed and cricket lovers were left with one question for him – “Hansie, how could you?”

He left the witness stand with the physical support of two men – a scene that signified that one mistake can reduce even a man who once stomped the entire cricket world with arrogance into a crumbling mess. That’s how Hansie Cronje walked into the oblivion.

22 July 2013, Delhi

“There are six accused in this case, three of them are on bail while two are abroad… The sixth is Hansie Cronje, who is dead.”

The cricket world forgot about him but the Delhi police didn’t. After 13 long years, they finally found a name to charge with on a charge sheet.

But does it really count anymore?

May be it does for the law. But for the countless cricket lovers, the charge sheet from Delhi police did nothing but scratch open a wound that they could have done without. It doesn’t matter anymore if Cronje was involved, because he has been reprimanded in the worst possible way.

Irrespective of whatever he did, Cronje will remain as one of the most interesting characters in the history of cricket. For some, he will be a liar who tainted the game forever and for the rest, who refuse to accept his indiscretion, he will remain as a leader who ‘made a grave mistake’.

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