On the 47th birth anniversary of the ‘flawed hero’ Hansie Cronje, who never lived to see his 33rd birthday, Sritama Panda looks back at the anecdotes, based on several stages of his life and of the legacy Cronje has left behind after his death, which when juxtaposed brings out the contrasting shades of his persona.
Life prior to international career
The inherently talented, Wessel Johannes Hansie Cronje was born on September 25, 1969, in Bloemfontein of Free State province, to former First-Class cricketer Ewie Cronje and his wife San-Marie Cronje. His elder brother Frans too played First-Class Cricket, who later went on to produce a film based on Hansie’s life and redemption. The three of them played for the Orange Free State Cricket team.
Hansie also represented the rugby team and captained both at school level. The captaincy skills which had come to him at a very young age only grew with time and at the age of 24 he went on to lead the South African team.
Cronje made his First-Class debut at the age of 18 in the year 1988 and played alongside his elder brother Frans for the Castle Currie Cup final in which he scored just two and 16. By the following season of 1989, Cronje had gained more recognition. In the semi-final of the Benson and Hedges Night Series against Impalas, he scored an unbeaten 105 for Free State which took them to the finals which was against Western Province. He top-scored with 73 and helped Free State in winning their first tournament title.
In that season, in January 1990 Hansie scored his maiden First-Class hundred while leading the South African Universities team, where he hit 104 against Mike Gatting’s English rebels. Soon he was appointed as the captain of Free State at the age of 21. He made 715 runs in that season, and continued leading the side till 1995-96 where he finished with the highest batting average in the season with a top score of 158 in the Currie Cup.
He also scored a double hundred for free state, 251. With the help of coach Eddie Barlow and under Cronje’s captaincy, the Free State team had won seven national tournament titles. The influence of Barlow’s coaching never left Cronje in his entire career and was seen in his confidence.
In 1995, in English conditions he scored 1,362 First-Class runs at 50.44 in a one-off season for Leicestershire. He topped the batting charts and among his four tons, there was his 213 against Somerset. His second county stint which was for Ireland, wherein he played as an overseas player and played a big role in his team’s first victory over an English county side. He scored 94 and took three wickets which helped Ireland beat a strong Middlesex side.
International career and captaincy
Within a year of South Africa’s readmission to ICC’s full membership in 1991-92, Cronje had was recognised enough with a remarkable average of 61.40 in the One-Day International (ODI) format. He soon made his ODI debut for South Africa, against Australia, in the Benson and Hedges World Cup 1992. South Africa, led by Kepler Wessels had recorded a nine-wicket victory against Australia, at Sydney.
He represented South Africa in eight out of the nine World Cup games, including the tragic semi-final against England where the rain method stole the match away from the grip of the Proteas, averaging a decent 34 with the bat. He soon made his Test debut against West Indies, which was also South Africa’s first Test since re-admission. South Africa lost the Test to West Indies by 52 runs and Cronje scored just five and two runs in the one-off match.
Despite his bad start, it didn’t stop Cronje from implementing the talent intrinsic in him and he soon went on to prove himself as the dynamic right-handed batsman, adept fielder and a discerning right arm medium-pacer. Following that, when India toured South Africa, the home team stood victorious in both, the seven-match ODI series (5-2) and the 4-match test series (1-0). In the very first ODI match of the series he took five wickets for 32 runs which remained his career best. He did fairly well in that seven-match series and gave away only 3.59 runs per over.
In the Test series as well, he proved his absolute brilliance. After the first two Tests ending in a draw, the third test which was played at Port Elizabeth, he scored a patient yet mighty 135 off 410 deliveries staying on pitch for 529 minutes, the first and highest of his six Test centuries. With the help of his innings along with Allan Donald’s 12 wickets (5&7), South Africa recorded first Test victory of their new era.
In September, Cronje scored his second test hundred, 122, which came in Colombo the to set up South Africa’s biggest Test win of an innings and 208 runs, and Sri Lanka’s biggest defeat. At at the age of 24, being the youngest player in the team, he was appointed as the vice-captain.
As captain Wessels had earlier made a statement on young Cronje,“We arrived one night in Agra and got off the plane. Our baggage was on a truck at the hotel and for some reason the staff were not available to offload. We stood around waiting, and everybody was tired and irritable. So Hansie simply jumped onto the baggage mountain and started taking down the suitcases. This prompted the others to do the work too. I could see he had natural leadership, was a servant-leader, doing what it takes to get things done, however small.”
It was more than apparent that captaincy was to cross his way soon. After serving as stand-in captain as Wessels was away, when the captain was back Cronje went on to score 721 runs in a period of 14 days which included the first four ODIs and the first test, against Australia which also included his highest ODI score of 112. Cronje took over the captaincy in the 1994-95 season, for the series against New Zealand wherein he set-up a 2-1 series victory after having lost the first test. It was a three-match series record for a captain since W.G. Grace.
He also scored his 4th test century in that series. When South Africa met New Zealand again in 1995, at Auckland, Cronje scored the only century of the match and set New Zealand for a target of 275 and gave his bowlers 63 overs to bowl the opposition out, which led to South Africa’s 93-run victory. His apparent sombre attitude counter-intuitively reflected his strategic discerning ability but occasionally he lost his cool too and there were instances where he saved and won matches but was suspended and fined for his having his own efficacious way with the umpires.
Eventually, he went on to lead South Africa in 53 of his 68 Tests and recorded 27 wins and 11 defeats. The only team against which Captain Cronje never won a Test series was Australia. Out of 188 ODIs (2nd most for a South African Captain after Graeme Smith) in which he represented South Africa, he captained 138 of them and won 99; he is the fourth most successful captain.
He also played 162 consecutive ODIs till his last match starting from September 1993, which is a South African record. In the better part of his career, he had the support of his team and particularly Bob Woolmer who always spoke highly of him and his articulate approach and of him being a natural leader.
Ironically, both Woolmer and Cronje, had their fates against them and faced what we can say as non-validated murders. The most unfortunate stage of his captaincy reflected much from the past, of his debut.
In the 1999 World Cup with the help of Lance Klusener, who was later declared the man of the tournament, South Africa made it to the semi-finals against Australia. South Africa required just a run off three deliveries when the on-crease pair Donald and Klusener faced run-outs and the match ended as a tie and since Australia had defeated South Africa in the Super-six stage, they made it to the finals.
Steve Waugh’s remark ‘You’ve dropped the World Cup’, addressing Gibbs, had actually come true. In 68 Tests he made 3,714 runs at an average of 36.41, and claimed 43 wickets at 29.95. In 188 ODIs he made 5,565 runs at an average of 38.64, took 114 wickets at 34.78 with an impressive economy rate of 4.44, and bagged 72 catches. His First-Class figures from 184 games were 12,103 runs at 43.69 and 116 wickets at 34.43.
The ignominy of selling self-pride in return for money and a ‘leather jacket’ – according to his confession in front of the King Commission, appointed by the South African Board, it was his ‘unfortunate love for money’ which made him go awry.
On April 7, 2000, sometime after the completion of South Africa’s successful tour of India, Delhi Police claimed to have a transcript of a telephonic conversation between Cronje and a member of the Indian betting syndicate, Sanjay Chawla. Cronje also added that former Indian captain Mohammad. Azharuddin had introduced him to the Indian betting syndicate in 1996, but Azharuddin said that this statement was ‘rubbish’.
On April 9, Cronje denied all allegations, saying, “I have never received any sum of money for any match that I have been involved in and have never approached any of the players and asked them if they wanted to fix a game”, but soon on 11th April Cronje called Ali Bacher at 3am to say that he had not been ‘entirely honest’ and admitted to accepting between $10,000 and $15,000 from a London-based bookmaker, for ‘forecasting’ results, not match-fixing.
On April 16, it was revealed that South Africa came close to accepting a $250,000 bribe to throw an international match against India in 1996. Cronje had said the team ‘laughed it off’ as one of his regular ‘practical jokes.’
On June 8, Herschelle Gibbs said that he had agreed to Cronje’s offer of $15,000 to score fewer than 20 runs in the in the 5th ODI, at Nagpur, but went to make 74 runs.
Even Henry Williams confessed that he was offered the same amount for conceding extra runs but was injured while bowling his second over and never received the amount. On 15th June he admitted to have he received money for giving away pre-match information to bookmakers but denied to have ‘thrown’ or ‘fixed’ a match.
On June 26, Cronje broke into tears before the King Commission as he begged for forgiveness saying, “There is no excuse and I have let the team, the fans and the game down.”
With the sudden turn of events, it also came out that the only voluntarily forfeited innings in Test history, between South Africa and England, was also a victim of Cronje’s fixing saga. South Africa had eventually lost the Test but was honoured for his heroic approach, but it’s only sad to learn how the entire cricket fraternity was deceived and so was the then English captain, Nasser Hussain who still recalls the incident as disgraceful.
Cronje had said that he was given a ‘leather jacket’ in return but no one knows how much truth the statement carried. In the following October, he was permanently banned from Cricket which he tried to fight by law but all his attempts failed. After one year had passed since the ban, he was trying to find redemption and by that time law had allowed him to coach in private, attend cricket matches as a spectator, and also work with the media.
Uncanny death or an unproven murder?
Hansie’s life enunciates that not all stories have a happy ending. On June 1, 2002 the world was taken aback and mourned on the sudden and shocking news of Hansie Cronje’s death. He couldn’t board the regular flight to Georgia, his home, from Johannesburg and decided to go by a cargo plane which was boarded by him and two pilots. The plane crashed into Onteniqua mountains and the three of them lost their lives instantly.
Bad weather, pilot’s negligence, multiple reasons were stated which led to the crash but fans from all around the world and later also the late Clive Rice denied to believe that it wasn’t a murder. In the wake of Bob Woolmer’s mysterious death in 2007, Rice stated that he believes both were murders conspired by betting syndicates. Sad, such mysteries remain closed books forever. Even years after Cronje’s death, the accusations never stopped coming in, to which his father Ewie said that those allegations ‘make no sense now’.
His brother Frans went on to make film named ‘Hansie’, based on his life, which was released in the year 2008. He asked empathy for his brother, a man who had made mistakes but didn’t turn away from them.
Legacy, spin in the tale and the number ‘5’
Soon after his death, the scathed leader gained a cult following which remembered him for the great captain and cricketer he was, a man who tried to right his wrongs but fate didn’t let him find salvation. Even Nelson Mandela said that Cronje deserved forgiveness.
He said, “Here was a young man courageously and with dignity rebuilding his life after the setback he suffered a while ago. The manner in which he was doing that promised to make him once more a role model of how one deals with adversity.”
Steve Waugh, Mike Atherton, Bob Woolmer, Kepler Wessels and the likes remembered him for his prowess. Sachin Tendulkar said that the bowler who troubled him the most was Hansie Cronje, whom he faced 11 times in Tests and dismissed five times. He’s still an icon for aspiring cricketers and they only look up to him for what he did for South African Cricket taking them to the heights they had never reached. In 2013, after Delhi Police filed a charge-sheet which included bookmakers and Cronje.
In the same year, Henry Williams came forward with a shocker saying that he had lied when he said that Cronje had offered him money for conceding extra runs. He added that he was pressurized to “nail Cronje”. Gibbs was away playing in the BBL and refused to comment on this. Hansie’s is thus a tale of the tainted hero whose stature still nestles at the shaky hands of Williams’ paradox. It was a ‘spin in the tale’ of Cronje who was himself a brilliant player of spin, including Shane Warne’s.
Ashwell Prince of South Africa wore the Jersey number 5, which was allotted to him, but added a ‘+0’ to the ‘5’ as a tribute to the late captain Hansie Cronje who wore the jersey number 5. The Jersey no. 5 remains immortalized as part of Cronje, thus.