Leader | Hansie Cronje was an inspirational figure in South African cricket, but a match-fixing scandal soon mired him in controversy. (Image | BBC)

BBC Radio 5 Live recently aired a programme chronicling the staggering lifetime of former South-African cricket captain Hansie Cronje. It was highly compelling listening, telling the story of how a seemingly unflappable sportsman rose untouched to the top of his game and then fell down as far as humanly possible as revelations of a deep involvement with the dark side of sports gambling and match fixing came to fruition.

He was the golden boy of South Africa, captain of his province Orange Free State at 21 and first captain of South Africa at 24. Throughout the 1990s Cronje (and his rugby counterpart, World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar) were seen as second only to Nelson Mandela amongst South Africans.  An extravagant batsman, brilliant fielder and capable part-time bowler, Cronje won test series victories against every team other than the unbeatable Australia during his time as as captain in the 1990s and won 99 of his 138 One-Day-International matches. Simply put, Hansie Cronje was South African cricket.

But in April 2000, this was all to change.

Delhi police in India, conducting an investigation into fraudulent bookmakers, intercepted a call between Cronje and a bookmaker allegedly offering money to shape the course of cricket matches. When the story came out the entire cricketing world rebuffed the allegations. Cronje himself said that they were ‘completely without substance’ and that he had never fixed a cricket match. However, three days later this would all change.

On April 11th 2000 Cronje phoned the head of the South African Cricket Board and admitted ‘he had not been entirely honest’ and admitted to accepting money for advising results but not to match fixing.  However in the subsequent weeks and months as well as during the trial and investigation of Cronje, the King Commission, more and more stories and indictments of Cronje’s contact with bookmakers emerged. During an ODI series match with India, Cronje had offered batsman Herschelle Gibbs $15,000 to score less than 20 runs & offered bowler Henry Williams the same amount to concede more than 50 runs. In reality, Gibbs scored 74 and Williams injured himself and only bowled a few overs. Cronje had also regularly received money from Indian bookmakers for giving away information on team selection.

The most famous – or infamous – example of Cronje’s indiscretion was the fifth test in the 1999/2000 South Africa-England series, the so called ‘Leather-Jacket test’ With rain preventing play for four of the five days, the game seemed as good as over. But Cronje came to an agreement with English captain Nasser Hussain and forfeited South Africa’s second innings and set England a total of 249 to chase down, to in his own words ‘make a game of it’. The game itself was intensely exciting with England claiming a narrow win. Cronje was lauded with praise as an innovator and model sportsman for giving the fans exciting cricket in a scenario where this was not normally possible. This remains to this day the only time a captain has ever forfeited an innings in the history of test cricket.

In the King Commission it emerged that Cronje had received a phone call the night before from a South African bookmaker who had offered him 500,000Rand to make the fifth day competitive. This money was never given to Cronje, but he was paid 50,000Rand and given a leather jacket as a ‘gift’. The 5 Live programme also focused on an incident in 1996 where Cronje had called a team meeting to consider the possibility of ‘throwing a match’, apparently the entire South African team talked over the idea and rejected it, even at one stage removing coach Bob Woolmer from the room, not wanting him to know what was being discussed.

This is akin to Steven Gerrard accepting money to play poorly at the upcoming Euro 2012, but it needs to be remembered that the captain in cricket has much more influence than in the majority of other sports.

The result of this is that Cronje’s entire career, which was previously unblemished, is completely clouded and tarnished. The 5-Live programme concluded that it is doubtful that all of Cronje’s indiscretions were ever revealed. At the end of the King Commission Cronje was in floods of tears after being banned from any involvement in cricket for life, he had fallen as far as humanly possible.

The story is captivating, gripping and intense and is still available on BBC IPlayer and made all the more intriguing after Cronje died in a plane-crash under suspicious circumstances in 2002. Hansie Cronje’s story is certainly one that will never be forgotten.

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