Hansie Cronje was a respected figure in South Africa until he confessed to his role in match-fixing © Getty Images
Hansie Cronje was a respected figure in South Africa until he confessed to his role in match-fixing © Getty Images

Hansie Cronje — the South African captain — he was successful, then defamed, disgraced, and finally met with a tragic death. Arunabha Sengupta looks at an event from his early days that shows that before his misdemeanours and trials, he had been just another talented and vibrant young man who was an incorrigible prankster.

The image that has been imprinted in our memories is one of a ruthless and successful captain, who hauled a promising South African side into the highest degrees of cricketing perfection. And then his many laurels were irreparably tarnished by the soot and stain of the murkiest association with the bookmakers.

His pristine cricketing whites were ripped off and the unsavoury dirty linen washed disconcertingly in public. The skeletons surprisingly toppled out of a cupboard that had seldom been considered anything other than a store for the most cherished of cricketing trophies.

Hansie Cronje passed away two years after the shattering confessions. He went down doubly dying, into the dust from whence he had sprung, when the Hawker Siddley 748 cargo aircraft crashed into the Cradock Peak after losing its way in the hostile Cape weather. It is difficult to imagine that this man of the famed zeal to win, and infamous tendency to compromise his team for lucre, was once a prankster of serious proportions.

He was just a 22-year-old when he appeared in his first Test match, the very first one South Africa played on their readmission into the international fold. At that time, Cronje was a cheerful young batsman and a livewire on the field. Besides, he loved the camaraderie and the fun associated with the game.

Never was it more apparent than at Newlands in February, 1993. South Africa were playing West Indies in the fifth match of the Total International Series. It was one of the early days when the Protean cricketers discovered the power of collective courage to refuse to buckle down in the face of hopelessness. Cronje played a major role in an incredible victory. And he followed it up by almost giving his captain and coach collective heart attacks by embarking on one of the most outrageous pranks.

Sent in to bat on a green and uneven pitch, the South Africans struggled against Pat Patterson, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop. Cronje came in at two for one and battled his way to 31 from 80 deliveries. Peter Kirsten limped to 30 from 123. Only Daryll Cullinan, in just his second One-Day International (ODI), managed some fluency as he stroked his way to 40 from 56. The score at the end of 50 overs stood at 140 for nine. The Cape Town crowd expected a Caribbean cruise to victory.

In the break captain Kepler Wessels gathered his team around. He was not one for pep talks, but there was something on his mind.  “The people out there, they think we’ve got no chance of winning this. But, on this pitch, I know we can. Let’s keep everything tight and try to encourage each other, bowl straight … we might surprise ourselves.”

The team sprinted in. Jonty Rhodes lit them up with some electric work, running out Desmond Haynes from backward point. The fantastic bowling line up of Allan Donald, Craig Matthews, Meyrick Pringle and Fanie deVilliers gave nothing away.

In the meantime Cronje was in the thick of things. He ran out Brian Lara and Junior Murray and caught Phil Simmons. When he bowled, it was sustained pressure with some immaculately nagging overs. Gus Logie fell to a catch by Andrew Hudson at mid-wicket, Carl Hooper as trapped leg before and Courtney Walsh snicked one behind the wicket.

Three overs were left with four runs separating the teams when Pringle ended it by getting Patterson leg-before. In the Member’s Stand, FW de Klerk leapt to his feet and stood with his fists in the air, his eyes moist with emotion. The re-emerging nation went wild, elated by the four run win. Cronje had figures of 8-0-27-3 to go with his hard-fought 31. He was named Man of the Match.

The dressing room was in the throes of chaotic celebration when there was a knock on the door. The President of the country himself walked in. In the midst of the rejoicing stood Cronje, a wide smile on his face, exhilarated to dangerous degrees. De Klerk moved towards him, to shake his hand. And immediately the youngster had one arm around the President’s neck, holding him close, while the other hand gripped a bottle of champagne. To the horror of Wessels and coach Mike Procter, the bottle started to tilt. Cronje was about to empty the contents on de Klerk’s noble head.

“No, Hansie, stop,” Wessels yelled.“You can’t do that. It’s the Prez. Stop it” The others watched dumbstruck. Procter, ever alert, removed his hat and held it between the mouth of the bottle and the crown of the head of the state.

And a wicked smile dawned on Cronje’s face. He slowly took the bottle away. Everyone sighed with tremendous relief and then burst out in uncontrolled fits of laughter. This was Hansie Cronje in early 1993. Young, vibrant, fun-loving, prankster. In less than a decade he was defamed, disgraced and, finally, dead.

Life does consist of curious twists and turns.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)