Hansie Cronje… a great career that came to a very unfortunate and tragic end © Getty Images
Hansie Cronje… a great career that came to a very unfortunate and tragic end © Getty Images

Hansie Cronje, born September 25, 1969, will be forever linked to bookmakers and match-fixing and the murkier side of cricket. However, he was also one of the greatest captains the world has seen who lives on in many minds as a splendid leader who somehow lost his way. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life, career, infamy and death of this complex man, trying to figure out the reason behind his transgressions.

Hero turned villain

Wanderers, February 1994. For the very first time in his career, the great Shane Warne did not manage to take a wicket in a One-Day International (ODI). Hansie Cronje used his huge reach to get down to the pitch of the ball and wallop the Australian leg-spinner to all corners of the Bull Ring. That day the young South African batsman scored 112 from 120 balls, with seven fours and three sixes, adding 106 in 14 overs with old friend Jonty Rhodes. Later in the match Fanie de Villiers fired in several yorkers and South Africa won by five runs.

The innings by Cronje pitchforked him into an icon, and he continued in the same vein, plundering 380 runs in eight outings. Standard Bank soon cashed in on this appeal of the rising star. The famed ad was made in which Cronje bats at the dead of night and hits a white ball, sending it into the bank of lights on one of the pylons, thereby causing power failure in the city. When the camera zooms in on the batsman, he grins mischievously and sheepishly mouths, “Sorry.”

Such was the youthful boyish charm of the 24-year-old that the ad went viral. The South African cricket fan celebrated this fresh faced lad who was already the vice-captain of the team and a leading light of a bright future.

Yet, six years later, this very same man jolted the nation into metaphorical darkness after a phone-call rang out in the middle of the night. The confession stripped the gloss of glory from the celebrated leader and turned him instantly into the dark face of corruption that dogs cricket. Soon, in a stately old building of Cape Town, situated beside the first ever European garden laid out in the country, this stately oak of South African cricket was hacked down mercilessly in front of public eye by the King Commission.

When Cronje had taken over the captaincy from Kepler Wessels at the age of 25, no one had seemed more ideally suited for the job. Seldom had the world witnessed a more natural leader of men. The team, an assembly of sparkling talent many of whom exceeded him substantially in age and experience, accepted his appointment, supported him to the hilt and looked up to him for direction and guidance. The media around the world were charmed into singing his praises. The sponsors, who always found Cronje squeezing assignments for them in his crammed calendar, could wish for no better brand ambassador. His mother San-Marie even got calls from moms and dads whose children idolised the South African captain. “Please ask him not to spit on the cricket field; my youngest son idolises Hansie and now he’s also spitting.”

In the half decade at the helm, he had been more successful than any South African skipper of yore  — and most of the captains across time and around the world. According to Allan Donald, “In a huge way, Hansie’s captaincy changed the nature of cricket in South Africa.” Besides, life had moulded him into a ‘born again’ Christian of devout bearing and serious religious inclinations. In short, he was the ideal role model in every respect.

And suddenly the many laurels he had earned 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 glanced at with anything other than a store for the most cherished of cricketing trophies.

Two years later, 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.

The journey from grandeur to infamy has been traced frequently, but the causes have often been sketchily analysed, in the mad rush for headlines, with journalists indulging in instant-psychology. To make a serious attempt at understanding the person, who staked all that he had achieved for a leather jacket and a fistful of Rands, it is perhaps best to start at the beginning.

The born leader

Cronje was born on September 25, 1969, in Bloemfontein. He hailed from the stock of farmers descended from French and Dutch ancestry, pastoral and Calvinist  — the Afrikaners. He was the second son of former Orange Free State cricketer Ewie Cronje. Elder brother, christened Frans Johannes after their paternal grandfather, also played First-Class cricket. According to family tradition, the younger son was named after their maternal grand-father Wessel Johannes, and also inherited his nickname ‘Hansie’.

Sports were indeed very much in the genes. His paternal grandfather and grandmother both played tennis for Bethulie. Besides, his father, affectionately called Oom Ewie (Uncle Ewie), was a rugby and tennis champion, long serving provincial and national sport administrator and captain of the Free State cricket team. His 70 against the visiting Australians in 1967 stood as a record for the state against the visitors till his son went quite some distance past it with 251 in 1994. In the year of Hansie’s birth, Ewie Cronje accepted a job as Sports Organiser at the University of Orange Free State and remained thus employed till retirement 35 years later. Ewie and Hansie Cronje were instrumental in making Bloemfontein into the cricket crazy city of today.

Cronje grew up playing backyard games of cricket and rugby with brother Frans and several other kids of the locality. At the age of 10, some of these local playmates included the Boje brothers, Nicky, Louis and Fourie. There was also a lanky lad who bowled fast with a furious expression called Donald.

Cronje attended the Grey College, which boasted a serious, strict sports regime. A few years ago Kepler Wessels had passed through the gates. Cronje himself excelled in cricket, rugby and tennis, and also participated in every other sport from the 56 km Two Oceans Marathon to bungee jumping from the Storms River Bridge, the highest point in South Africa.

Cronje was not only a phenomenal athlete. He had the IQ of a gifted child. Yet, his parents turned down the school’s offer of admitting him into a class for special children. They wanted him to enjoy a normal childhood.

At Grey, Cronje already demonstrated exceptional leadership skills and fierce zeal to win. Almost from the beginning he was the captain of both cricket and rugby sides. He played hard, often sledging opponents to distraction. He even claimed points when opponents in tennis caught high, outgoing shots, claiming that the ball had not pitched before being intercepted. Winning was very important to him.

Another characteristic was his ability to find himself amidst money. On junior cricket tours, he was invariably hosted by wealthy families as opposed to brother Frans who almost always stayed with the less well-off ones. Yes, it seems he had a fascination for money from an early age. When Ewie Cronje offered a 13-year old Hansie 10 cents for every run, he scored a century and from then diligently multiplied his score by 10 in his diary to keep track of his income.

The Cronje brothers picked up excellent English and the basic fundamentals of cricket from international stars who often stayed with them at their place. Rhodesian great Colin Bland visited them as did Yorkshire cricketers Neil Hartley and Arnie Sidebottom.

Playing for Free State

In 1982, Cronje first played alongside Rhodes at the Perm Week for primary schools. Later, in 1986 and 1987, Cronje was the captain of the South African school side and Rhodes was his vice-captain. Jackie McGlew, South African convenor of selectors, saw Cronje leading the School side at the age of 18. He immediately identified him as a future national captain. As mentioned earlier, there was never a more natural leader of men.

At the same time, he was developing into an excellent batsman. The SA Schools side played against the Free State team and were terrorised by Donald. Even Rhodes was hit on the elbow and had to retire early in his innings. Cronje played his old backyard rival with calm confidence and got an excellent century.

In late 1987, Cronje made it to the Free State squad. Along with him in the side were his brother Frans, and fellow Grey College graduates Corrie van Zyl, Louis Wilkinson and captain Joubert Strydom. In those days of isolation, till the mid-1980s, Free State was in the B-section of the national tournament. The game was more of a social occasion for the players than a serious sport. The Grey College brigade brought about drastic changes to this attitude. With time the older cricketers left and the younger men metamorphosed the cricket team into one of the fittest units. Cronje, a fitness fanatic, led the training drills with endless runs, sessions in the gym and even sprints all the way up very tall buildings.

Cronje made his debut in the final of the Castle Currie Cup in 1987-88. He got his big break when Allan Lamb, who had enjoyed an excellent season, had to fly back to England. The baptism could not have been in more demanding circumstances. Free State had run into the Transvaal ‘Mean Machine’ led by the great Clive Rice. The Wanderers pitch was dangerously green and the highest total of the game was 163. Cronje managed just two in the first innings, but top-scored with 16 in a total of 51 in the second, against a ferocious bowling attack of Rice and West Indian Rod Estwick.

By 1989, Cronje was turning into a hero. Free State won their first tournament, the Benson and Hedges Night Series. In the semi-final against Impalas, he scored 105. And in the final against Western Province, he top-scored with 70 as the side defended a total of 213 against the likes of Peter Kirsten and Adrian Kuiper.

In 1990, Cronje was appointed skipper of Free State at the age of 21. And soon Eddie Barlow joined as the coach of the side. It was largely due to Barlow’s influence that the cricket of the Free State side was totally transformed. He ingrained the principle of believing in one’s abilities, something Cronje remembered all throughout his cricketing days.

It was in 1995-96 that Cronje gave up the captaincy of Free State. By then, in six years, he had led them to seven national titles.

The University studies continued with cricket, and even during this phase Cronje excelled in the financial matters. As Rhodes recalls, “It took me five years to complete my degree and my first salary for Natal was R3,000. I walked out of varsity with nothing in the bank, even after several years of First-Class professional cricket. But while he was still a student, I remember Hansie talking about building a house, taking out a bond, getting a tenant in it. By the time he left varsity after four years, he had an asset portfolio.”

International cricket

South Africa re-entered international fold in 1991, with a series of three ODIs in India. Cronje, along with three other young cricketers, was selected as four ‘development’ players who were to go there to gain experience. It was understood that he would not play any match, but he was ecstatic. Cronje loved the atmosphere and adulation associated with cricket in India, and another highpoint of the tour was his meeting Mother Teresa.

Contrary to expectations, the South African selectors decided to opt for a young team for their 1992 World Cup campaign. Kepler Wessels was chosen captain of the side, and Cronje was one of the young batsmen in the team.

Wessels immediately took to Cronje. He had already noticed him in India, displaying admirable leadership skills in an off the field event. “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.”

The South African World Cup campaign was a story of an almost fairy-tale run stopped by a ridiculous rain-rule. Cronje did not get too many runs, but the experience was valuable as he would return to Australia often during his career. According to his teammates, he worshipped Wessels and was thoroughly influenced by the older man’s approach to discipline and hardwork. He absorbed as much as possible from the international experience of Wessels  — in this regard, there was no one else to tap in the South African side.

The bond continued in West Indies. Cronje made his debut in the first Test match South Africa played after their readmission. He was not successful, scoring five and two in the two innings. But, the Caribbean tour was another huge learning experience. During this trip, Cronje even copied the hair cut of his captain.

It was on return to South Africa that he met with a tragic experience that turned him to religion. Cronje was driving from Durban along the N2 towards Empangeni, on his way to attend the christening of a newly born niece, when a little girl ran on to the road and was hit by his car. She succumbed to the injuries and it left Cronje distraught, although there had been no careless driving on his part. The reactions he went through were profound and soon he joined Bible study groups. Later, during the series against India in 1992-93, Wessels invited Ray McCauley, a pastor and former body-builder, to speak to the team. McCauley had been a pastor in the USA and had started the Rhema church. He was also involved in the new African National Congress. He became something like a chaplain in the South African side and under his influence Cronje grew into a devoted follower of Christ. There were several Bible study sessions involving ‘born again’ Christians in the team like Andrew Hudson, Wessels, Rhodes and Fanie de Villiers.

Later, Cronje’s Christian image was flashed against the match-fixing charges, and made into a colourful contrast by the press.

Cronje was dropped for the first Test against India, but returned for the second. In the third Test at Port Elizabeth, he cemented his place in the side as a regular number three with a sterling innings of 135.

By the time South Africa toured Sri Lanka in 1993, Cronje had been appointed vice-captain. He was still a month shy of 24. He celebrated with 122 in the second Test at Colombo.

Hansie Cronje: The great leader of men who was led astray

Hansie Cronje the batsman could be dangerous, as Muttiah Muralitharan discovered when he was slammed for 4, 6, 6, 6 off consecutive balls © Getty Images

First brushes with captaincy

It was in the second Test at Sydney in 1993-94 that demonstrated Cronje’s captaincy skills on the international stage for the first time. On the fourth day, Wessels broke a finger in attempting a catch. Cronje took over captaincy and led the side with Australia requiring 117 to win. He changed his bowlers astutely, introducing De Villiers in place of Donald. The field was manoeuvred with seasoned acumen. De Villiers picked up six wickets and when he held a return catch from Glenn McGrath to seal the five-run victory, Cronje raised him on his shoulders and chaired him off the ground.

Cronje led in a full Test during the next match at Adelaide, but South Africa lost to some ridiculous umpiring by Darryl Hair.

Back home, Cronje enjoyed a great series as the Australians came over for the South African leg of the twin series. Wessels stepped down after the series in England and Cronje was all set to take the reins.

However, at this juncture some curious decisions by the selectors queered the pitch for the handover. With Cronje undergoing a slump in form, Wessels was cajoled into leading the side to a one-day tournament in Pakistan. Cronje was eager for the captaincy, but it was delayed. And by the end of the tour, Wessels was informed without a choice that he had to hand the leadership back to his protégé for the forthcoming Test series against New Zealand. This did not really go down well with Wessels. While he did not have a fallout with Cronje, the quixotic measures by the selectors did strain the relations to an extent.
Hansie Cronje the captain

So, a month after his 25th birthday, Cronje was offered the captaincy of the national team. He lost the first Test against New Zealand and came back to win the second and third, and also enjoyed a superb series with the bat. As expected, he had fit into the role with consummate ease.

Cronje led in 53 of his 68 Tests. He never quite reached sublime highs as a batsman. He could be an attractive strokeplayer, and his reach made him a fine attacking player of spin. Indeed, he scored Test cricket’s then third fastest fifty at Centurion off 31 balls by hitting Muttiah Muralitharan for 4, 6, 6, 6 off consecutive balls. However, he remained a nervous starter at the highest level and his collection of 3,714 runs at 36.41 with six hundreds left the lingering taste of unfulfilled promise. In 188 ODIs, he scored 5,565 runs at 38.64 with two hundreds. His 43 wickets in Tests at a respectable 29.95 and 114 in ODIs at 34.78 were results of his nagging wicket-to-wicket medium pace.

Hansie Cronje: The great leader of men who was led astray

Hansie Cronje’s 43 Test wickets came at a respectable average of 29.95 © Getty Images

However, Cronje the captain brought along immense value with to more than compensate for his ordinary batting numbers. Under his leadership, South Africa won 27 Tests and lost 11. Of the 18 series he led in, 13 were won and he lost just four. In ODIs, he won 99 of his 138 matches as captain and lost just 35.

The incredible success had much more to do with the fantastic team that he led. His approach and techniques have been analysed in great detail and his leadership has been universally hailed as the pivotal factor.

From the very beginning, Cronje went about setting long term goals. Along with coach Bob Woolmer, he presented a series of questions to the team to gauge where the team was and where they would like to be. It emerged that by the end of 1999, the team wanted to be No 1 in Tests, No 1 in ODIs, win the 1999 World Cup and have a team that was culturally representative of all South Africans on merit.

The captain and the team worked diligently to achieve these goals. Although not all targets were met, South Africa under Cronje was perhaps the closest to a mean machine in the international cricket. They operated in a ruthless system. Every match seemed planned to perfection, with on-field tactics and target scores meticulously derived. For them, no task seemed impossible.

“Hansie’s optimism was another factor in the curve of successes. There was never anything pessimistic about him,” recalled Boeta Dippenaar.

Rhodes attributed his calmness in the face of pressure to his rugby days.

Clinical psychologist Anne Warmenhoven’s 2005 PhD thesis was based on Hansie Cronje’s emotional intelligence and the way that affected his leadership and later the decisions in life. She particularly stressed on his ‘self-efficacy’  — which he transmitted to his teammates.

Cronje was fanatical about his fitness regime and led by example in this area. He set goals for his running courses and gym sessions. Most often he emerged the fittest individual in the team. Gary Kirsten remembers how he had unwittingly offered to accompany him on a four kilometre run only to fall embarrassingly behind, panting way too hard to discuss the things he had on his mind.

South African cricket changed under his leadership. According to Donald, “For starters, there was less drinking and more practising. In 1995, Meyrick Pringle was dropped because he came back late after a night out during the second Test match against England at the Wanderers. It was not his first offence and he was never picked again. With Hansie’s tremendous emphasis on fitness he influenced the way cricket was played around the world.”

Setting the example himself, Cronje continuously raised the bar for his team. South Africans became the fittest team in the world boasting the best fielding unit by a long stretch.

It was also during his reign that Woolmer experimented with digital video based analysis. The application developed to facilitate this is used to this day.

According to Warmenhoven, one of the secrets of successful man-management of Cronje was that he treated his team-members like customers, using management techniques of the business world to bring out the best in them. For example, he made his ‘clients’ look good by acknowledging them in every possible way, made them feel a significant part of successes, allowed others to take credit for jobs well done, never criticised the players publicly, and always monitored ‘team satisfaction’. He also selected a core group of senior players as middle management and set up a governance structure. Divided into fields of expertise, there would be batting captains, bowling captains and fielding captains.

Cronje could handle the most targeted media attack with calm nonchalance. He repeatedly sidestepped the offensive strategies rolled out by the infamous Australian media before important tours. And he was also zealous about protecting his players. When Neil Manthorp wrote strongly about Daryll Cullinan’s inability to read Warne, Cronje swore viciously at the journalist and made arrangements to stop him from getting access to the players.

The reasons why

With time, there were changes. Warmenhoven wrote, “Where Hansie’s captaincy had initially been more democratic, as he got down to the task of winning the respect of especially the senior players and learning the finer points of international captaincy from the more experienced cricketers of the side, his style began to change as he became more comfortable and confident in his leadership role.” He demanded more from individuals and obtained a fine balance of empathy for his team members and remaining focused on the goals.

Cronje could indulge in harmless pranks. He once exchanged the malaria pills of Paddy Upton with similar looking sleeping pills. Following this he made sure that the training that followed involved stretching out on the ground, and soon had the trainer snoring away as the others went through their routine. He was also not averse to telling the hotel receptionist to wake everyone at 4.00 am while enjoying a restful sleep to a more decent hour himself.

However, he excelled in maintaining a balance between being one of the boys and keeping his distance as a leader. He needed to develop a bit of aloofness in his makeup and managed that to perfection. There would never be any doubt about who the captain was when Cronje was on the field.

What all this also harboured was a lack of mentorship. Cronje himself was the supreme authority and lacked guidance in his actions. According to Warmenhoven, “Thus no one was there to warn him of his misguided explorations into the world of bookmakers.”

Cronje also had one other flaw in his otherwise excellent mental makeup. He was unable to say ‘no’. Whenever his sponsors wanted him he was there. This meant that there was little time for himself, or for introspection. “This hampered personal and spiritual growth and as his values began to shift, his ability to distinguish between healthy balance or moderation and excess began to blur. It made him vulnerable,”  says Warmenhoven.

Yes, bookmakers approached. Cronje fell for leather jackets and huge sums of money. He approached players to throw matches and manipulate results. At the behest of bookies, he persuaded Nasser Hussain to forfeit an innings each of a Test match at Centurion in 2000 to ensure a dramatic result. All of these have been written about often. None of these acts can be excused. However, one can try to find out what led this exemplary leader of men into committing such severe transgressions.

There are two other arguments one needs to look at.

The 1999 World Cup semi-final ended in a heart-breaking tie and the Australians went through to the final. The result left the entire South African team devastated. There was little support forthcoming from the management. “The United Cricket Board did not provide the right support that Hansie as a captain needed,” Cronje’s mother San-Marie laments. “The team was down and Hansie alone had to pick them up. He was totally devastated.”

Many months later, when Cronje was at a function and people were asked to name their dearest wish, he said, “All I want is one run.”

The other explanation goes back to his formative years. There is a story recounted by biographer Garth King, which talks about one of Cronje’s hunting trips with uncle Oom Wiester of Junction Spruit. Cronje was then the captain of South Africa, enjoying his most successful period. And while hunting a blesbok herd, Wiester noticed that the animals had moved past Cronje’s position and he had not even reacted. The .303 rifle lay next to him. On being asked what made him let the herd go, Cronje said, “Oom, did you know that I have had one big problem in life? I have never been a child. I’ve never had the privilege of being a child. Do you know how nice it is just to sit here and be still?”

According to King, for someone who had taken on every responsibility handed to him from his earliest days, for someone who spent almost every moment in adoring public eye while living a life of professional iron control, the lucrative world of the bookies can seem strangely exciting and intoxicating.

The confession

In any case, on April 11, 2000, the cricket world finally crashed through the floor. United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) supremo Ali Bacher received a call from the captain at 3.00 am in the morning while staying at a game park lodge in KwaZulu-Natal. In a hushed voice, Cronje informed Bacher, “I have not been entirely honest with you.” Before the call, Cronje had supposedly grappled with his conscience and had finally succumbed, confiding in his spiritual guide Ray Macauley.

Hansie Cronje: The great leader of men who was led astray

Hansie Cronje (centre) faces the media after his stunning confession to Ali Bacher © Getty Images

Soon, the King Commission was set up headed by Judge Erwin King and the erstwhile captain of the country was subjected to a trial in full view of the media and public.

On June 7, 2000, Pat Symcox alleged that the team were offered $250,000 to lose an ODI. A day later Herschelle Gibbs revealed that Cronje had offered $15,000 to score less than 20 in an ODI in India.

On June 15, a tearful Cronje admitted to obtaining large sums from bookmakers and asking some teammates to underperform. On October 11, UCBSA banned Cronje for life.

The brief second innings

After the ban, Cronje had slowly worked his way to regaining confidence. The same love of money was being channelled into the corporate world. The hard work and dedication, along with leadership skills  — qualities that had taken him to the pinnacle of South African cricket and established him as the most successful skipper of the country  — had propelled him to pursue and complete a masters degree in business leadership. He took up a job with Bell Equipment, and was, by all indications, dedicated to his new vocation.

Cronje did some excellent work. A series of publicity engagements he had managed earned a lot of praise. Some corporate social responsibility events were also arranged in which he spoke  — and spoke well, raising R100,000 for handicapped children.

Perhaps in the intervening couple of years, Cronje had come to terms with his disgrace. Perhaps he was rebuilding his life. Perhaps he would never have regained the sparkling smile which he flashed as a youth during South Africa’s first Test after the apartheid era. But, he was painstakingly working his way back towards it.

However, in the early hours of June 1, 2002, his second innings was cut brutally short by a fatal flight of fate.

In an interview given to CricketCountry, former South African great Clive Rice voiced his conviction that Hansie Cronje was murdered.

Memories of the man remain mixed.

Some, like sports scientist Tim Noakes who worked closely with the team, brand him as intimidating and afflicted with antisocial personality disorder. Yet, teachers of his former school refuse to accept that he was a bully.

Teammates such as Gibbs and Mark Boucher have revealed that they had been approached by the captain with hints of compromising performance. At the same time, Gibbs later visited him in his lawyer’s chambers. When Cronje said, “I’m sorry man,” Gibbs responded, “I got myself into it anyway, who gives a f**k anyway? Shit happens.” He left saying, “Hansie, life is great.”

For many of his countrymen, he remains a great captain who had lost his way. His picture continues to hang in the Bell boardroom with the caption Our Hero. In spite of the matches he may have thrown away, the results he may have compromised, his record as a skipper continues to rank among the all-time best.

Yes, Cronje had erred. So had, in various degrees, several other cricketers around the world. Some went scot-free, some received a rap on the knuckles behind closed doors and were rebuked in hushed tones, some were banned, some washed their sins away with tears. Many played again, some joined politics, some turned television commentators.

In the case of Cronje, the camera zoomed in on every blemish, without mercy and with the ancient fascination for public beheadings. According to Cronje’s mother San-Marie, “The King Commission was a butchery. Hansie was cut to the bone and the wounds were never closed up. It was a bloody dissection of my son.”

At his funeral, held at his old school Grey College in Bloemfontein, Pastor Dave Hooper summed it up saying, “All our hearts are aching.”

Yes, with the crashing plane he went down doubly dying. However, he did not go unwept or unsung, and part of him lives on in our memory with honour.

In Photos: Hansie Cronje’s cricketing career

(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://twiter.com/senantix)