The toss for the first-ever Test match between South Africa and Pakistan at Johannesburg just over 18 years ago was ostensibly a noble affair. The World Cup holders were about to take on the country recently readmitted to the sporting world, with both sides led by an outwardly upstanding, outstanding leader.
Sensitive noses could already smell something rotten in the state of Gauteng. Discontent had emerged in the Pakistan camp and rumours surrounding the teams’ encounters in the recently-concluded Mandela Trophy One-Day International tournament were already starting to waft around the press box.
Unlike in this historic first five-dayer, ahead of the two finals of that quadrangular contest, the away captain had won the toss in both, yet inexplicably opted twice to bat second. Pakistan lost the matches and ultimately their vice-captain, Rashid Latif, who left the tour enraged and suspicious at his skipper’s apparent strategic absurdity. The long road to ignominy for the two men watching the coin flip in the air ahead of that Wanderers match, Salim Malik and Hansie Cronje, was taking another suspicion-laden twist.
The 1995 Test itself would prove unmemorable for the neutral as an exuberant Fannie de Villiers obliterated Pakistan by 324 runs. Neither has this particular match ever been officially cited as dubious, but at South Africa’s King Commission into match-fixing in 2000, Cronje testified he was offered $10,000 to throw the first final of that Mandela tournament earlier in Pakistan’s tour, as well as tearfully owning up to numerous other instances of corruption.
Malik himself denied allegations surrounding the ODI, but was formally charged in relation to it at the Qayyum Commission into his conduct. He was found innocent by way of lack of evidence on this specific charge, but was banned for life on other grounds, not least because the aforementioned Latif became a central figure to Justice Qayyum’s investigations, voicing the suspicions — and many others— he’d acted on with his feet five years earlier.
In death, Cronje — who was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2002 — continues to divide opinion and Malik has recently had his life ban overturned, yet the two captains at the Wanderers back then undoubtedly remain the Crick and Watson of the sport’s corrupt genetic mutations, the pioneers who mapped out a path for others’ human weakness to follow.
Again in Johannesburg, South Africa and Pakistan have just concluded their 19th Test against each other with thankfully very little, if any, thoughts of such malfeasance hanging over the proceedings, not least because of the two captains heading the sides.
Graeme Smith led in a Test for the hundredth time — arguments surrounding the status of his skippering of the ICC World XI in 2005 notwithstanding — evincing the same granite understatement with which he’s been working the world’s bowlers off his hip for the last decade. The man who was too young to lead has now finally seen off the legacy of South Africa’s post-Cronje demons the same way he has three England captains.
Similarly, and despite his simultaneously eyebrow-raising and eyelid-closing knock in the 2011 World Cup semi-final, Misbah-ul-Haq, the great administrator moonlighting as a cricketer, can be credited with Pakistan’s return to respectability and beyond in the aftermath of Salman Butt and Company’s spot of impropriety in 2010. On the third and fourth days, the veteran with a capacity for graft as vast as his regal nasal cavity gritted away valiantly for over four hours for his 64 but his efforts, alongside the equally stoic Asad Shafiq, were always doomed to failure in the face of Dale Steyn‘s taser of skills — talents which have now brought as many five-wicket hauls in winning causes as achieved by Richard Hadlee, Dennis Lillee and Malcolm Marshall.
Butt is appealing his 10-year ban. Malik has been angling for a return to international cricket as Pakistan’s batting coach, the chutzpah writ as large as his moustache. Recently another protagonist in the Cronje scandal, Henry Williams, claimed he’d lied at the King Commission, his motives and explanations confused and tangled, though potent enough to allow the matter to creep back into the headlines.
Cricket’s air is still tainted by these and other more contemporary suspicions and another leader in the news had it right when it comes to all sport’s hoodlums. From fixated footballers to juiced cyclists to those two at the Wanderers back in 1995, the recently-cleansed Richard III sets the standard for all those who seek to deceive the masses in the hunt for self-enrichment:
“And thus I clothe my naked villainy With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ; And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”
Four hundred years before Cronje and Malik walked out to the middle under the Johannesburg sun, wily old Shakespeare had already recorded their epitaphs.
(James Marsh is a TEFL teacher based in the Czech Republic, although his real occupation is alienating those close to him by wallowing on statsguru. He blogs on cricket at Pavilion Opinions and can be found on Twitter at @PavilionOpinion)