The Hansie Cronje Story
By Mark Chapman:
Hansie Cronje: cricketer, captain, Afrikaaner, leader, hero, Christian, wealthy, cheat, manipulator and psychopath. All words that have been used in the past week as I have travelled around South Africa.
His brother, Frans said this: “The whole new South Africa, the fall of apartheid and Nelson Mandela as President makes it a lot easier for people to forgive in South Africa.
For a lot of the British media it’s been very difficult for them to accept the forgiveness part.” Frans is something of an expert in absolution. As a deeply religious man it is something that comes naturally to him.
As the brother of Hansie, he has had to be. Cronje of course is also dead, killed in a plane crash 10 years ago this week. For most, it was an unfortunate, tragic accident for some it is seen as something more sinister.
“Very fishy” is how Clive Rice described it to me. The former Nottinghamshire captain takes into account the appalling weather in the George area as Cronje’s plane came into land, and bears in mind that certain landing signals were not working at the airport. But he feels the company that Cronje kept outweighs the scientific evidence.
“Certain people needed him out,” Rice said. “Whether it was one, two, or 15 people that were going to die it didn’t matter, Hansie was the one that was going to have to go and if they could cover it up as a plane crash then that was fine.” Those “certain people” were bookmakers.
Despite leading his country, and being at one stage “only second to Mandela in terms of popularity” according to his brother, Cronje allowed himself to be led down a path of corruption and cheating.
“He always had an adventurous part of him that was inquisitive,” Frans said. “Playing cricket year in year out, living in hotels and airports I think becomes tedious and boring after a while. Maybe a bit of boredom set in and maybe this was something a bit interesting.”
Whether Cronje was bored on South Africa’s tour to India in 1996 is not documented but the offers he received most definitely are. $30,000 would be his if the team lost wickets on the final day of the third Test to ensure an Indian victory.
Reasoning that this would happen without him having to speak to his players, Cronje said nothing. The wickets duly fell, South Africa lost and Cronje received the money for, in his own words, “effectively doing nothing”.
On the same tour, Cronje put an offer of $200,000 to his players to lose a one-day benefit match. Some of them walked out immediately, others stayed and suggested he asked for more from his bookmaker contact. Dave Richardson, the new chief executive of the ICC, was in that meeting. “At the time it did not seem a big issue,” he said when speaking in 2002. “It was a novelty.”
Such flippancy cannot be found in Henry Williams. The 44-year- old is wary as we shake hands at Boland Cricket Club, 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. Despite agreeing to the interview, he seems keen to point out that he doesn’t want to rake over old ground. “I will not tell you who said what to whom, I don’t want to bring back those memories.”
The sky is blue, the sun hovers over the nearby mountains and yet Williams admits there is a cloud permanently over his head because, in 2000, he was persuaded to underperform in a one-day international.
He was meant to go for over 50 runs when he bowled his 10 overs of medium pace against India. Cronje also told Herschelle Gibbs to score less than 20 and the side would get no more than 270. Not one of those three scenarios ended up happening but once Cronje confessed, Williams and Gibbs were in trouble and banned for six months each.
Gibbs came back to form a successful international career, Williams never played for his country again. “It feels like when you walk people are staring at you and it was bad. It was stressful. My Mum and Dad didn’t bring me up like that. How could that be? That’s not my child?”
He looks into the distance only returning my gaze when I bring up the subject of his own faith. “I’ll forgive,” he says “but it’s a permanent scar, you can’t forget it. He never ever spoke to me about this. He’s dead now and it still worries me.”
What worried many in the new South Africa was that the two players Cronje had selected to be part of his plan were players of colour. Any suggestion of racism are refuted though by those that knew him and worked with him. Plenty tell stories of the times he drove for hours to coach in townships with no publicity and, more importantly, no remuneration.
Dr Ali Bacher was the head of the United Cricket Board of South Africa when Cronje was captain. He said: “In the new democracy he was seen as a young Afrikaaner who had a vision to transform cricket, to transform the country.”
Bacher and Cronje would eventually fall out over transformation. Displeased over Bacher insisting on a squad having to have a racial quota, Cronje resigned in private. “It is because of all the political nonsense. It has now become impossible for me to enjoy cricket.”
His resignation was rejected and he was persuaded to carry on. Marlon Aronstam dialled Hansie Cronje's mobile on 17 January 2000. He told him he had a negative image and was perceived as conservative. They had never spoken before. Aronstam, a bookmaker, was cold calling the South African captain and yet, within hours, he was in a hotel room with him and offering 500,000 rand to a charity of Cronje's choice and “a gift”.
All Cronje had to do was to persuade Nasser Hussain and England to make a game of it on the final day of a Test ruined by the weather. Both sides were to forfeit an innings to give England a run chase. The following morning Hussain, unaware of the meeting, agreed.
Alec Stewart remembers a “tough run chase” as England won by two wickets. He doesn't remember his exact score but he does remember the “bitter, bitter taste” when they found out just months later what Cronje had done.
Aronstam didn't remember too much either as he sat across from me in a central London hotel room, more out of convenience I feel than the passing of time. “Cronje loved cricket but the money was a bonus.
Without money the world doesn't run,” said the man who had asked for FA Cup final tickets to speak to me. Thickset physically and with even thicker skin metaphorically, I asked him if he felt guilty. “Nah, I don't believe I did anything wrong”.
Cronje knew he had sinned. “I could no longer live with myself or with the situation I had created,” he told the King Commission, an inquiry set up by the South African government into match fixing. There were around 40 people subpoenaed to give evidence.
Cronje's statement was the only one televised. He ended his evidence in tears, a crumpled, broken, exhausted man who had to be helped out of the room. That was an act according to Professor Tim Noakes – who had been the national side's sports scientist during the mid-nineties.
With passions running high at the time of the revelations, he had called Cronje a “genetic rogue” but told me he how regretted that. Instead he used the word “psychopath”. As I pushed him that that sounded harsher than his original description, he explained that it was because Cronje displayed all the characteristics of a psychopath – “no remorse, no conscience and charm”.
Frans prefers to remember the Test matches he used to play with his brother in the family garden in Bloemfontein than the man who fell into a deep depression in the 18 months that followed the King Commission. There are tears in his eyes as he talks: “Hansie felt like he had let everyone down. Madiba (Nelson Mandela) being the first one.”
We are talking in the offices of Francois Pienaar. A Rugby World Cup winner, a hero, a South African sporting icon. The irony is not lost on a single one of us. “When I get on a plane,” says Pienaar, “invariably there will be a black gentleman sitting and as I walk past he will say, 'good morning my captain', and you just go 'wow'. It is such a nice feeling. It is incredible.”
There were no such platitudes as Cronje strapped himself into the back of a cargo plane on his final journey. A final journey that maybe he had forseen a decade earlier when writing in a Christian magazine.
He had rediscovered his religion and built his relationship with God after being in car accident that had killed a small girl. He wrote: “We are constantly travelling on the road and in the air, I now have perfect peace that should I die in a plane crash, I would go to heaven”.
“Is he in heaven?” I ask Frans. “Yes,” he takes a sip of coffee, “you don't have to be perfect to go to heaven.”
Mark Chapman presents 'The Hansie Cronje Story' on 5 live Sport on Wednesday night from 7.30pm.
Click here to watch a clip of Mark as he previews the documentary.