Henry Williams celebrates a wicket

As good as it got: WIlliams celebrates one of his nine ODI wickets - Nick Knight in Cape Town in January 2000

© PA Photos

The Banished

The coloured lie

Henry Williams was the forgotten man in the Cronje match-fixing hearings. Over a decade later he wants it to remain that way

Telford Vice |

Warmth from Cape Town's setting sun slanted into the scene. The air was as still as the wooden panels that embraced the room. Desks stood square and silent, emptiness all around.

Only in the press gallery was life evident. Fingers attached to the twitching arms and shoulders of reporters - themselves silent and hunched over keyboards, writing and filing that day's copy - composed a discordant, subdued soundtrack.

But someone else was present. He sat as still as the air, as silent as the desks, and as empty as he could be. Henry Williams had been the last witness of that day's proceedings at the King Commission. He arrived proud and smiling, wearing his Boland blazer as a shield against whatever the world might throw at him.

But Williams wore more chinks than armour. The lawyers' questions hit their mark, and the truth bled out of him as he sat there. With it went his distinction as a cricketer good enough to have played for South Africa, as well as any hopes he might have harboured of that distinction smoothing his path through the rest of his life. Cricket was almost all he had. Now that had been taken from him. The only other thing he had had was dignity. That was gone too.

Williams gave testimony in his first language, Afrikaans. It was translated into English by an interpreter. Williams and many in the watching, listening crowd of lawyers, journalists and public knew what he had said in Afrikaans differed - sometimes significantly - from what was entered into the record in English. The murmurs of disbelief caught Williams' eye. With confusion and fear, he looked at the people who knew what he had said and how it was being bent out of shape.

Cricket was almost all he had. Now that had been taken from him. The only other thing he had had was dignity. That was gone too

Yes, Williams said, he had accepted Hansie Cronje's offer of illicit cash to concede more than 50 runs in his ten overs in an ODI against India in Nagpur on March 19, 2000. No, he had not kept his end of the bargain - he injured a shoulder and was unable to bowl more than 11 deliveries. So, no, he had not been paid his dirty money. At that, snickering snaked through the room. Not only had Williams confessed to being a match-fixer, he had admitted to not being much good at match-fixing.

One by one, the raw bones of Williams the cricketer were exposed. Then the broken bones of Williams the man were picked clean. By the time the lawyers were done, all that seemed left of him was a pair of haunted eyes and a now rumpled Boland blazer. Once Williams' last scrap of self-respect had been flicked away, judge Edwin King adjourned proceedings. After a hurried shuffling of papers into piles, of piles into files, and of files into briefcases, the room cleared and the emptiness and silence descended with the slanting sun.

Williams, eager to cleanse himself of his humiliation, had tried to join the stream for the exits. He rose and took a step but seemed unable to take another. He made it as far as the front edge of the witness stand, slumped backward, clutched at the stand in order to stay upright, and inched sideways like a mountaineer stranded on the brink of an abyss. Long minutes later he was safely back in the chair. There he sat, mired in gloom and staring straight ahead at nothing.

He was still there when the cleaners arrived and ignored him as they went about their work. The reporters, too, pretended he was not there. When the cleaners and the press finished and left, some two hours after the end of that day's hearings, Williams remained unmoved. How long would he sit there, trying to find the strength and self-respect to stand and walk out the door and back into the world?

Different strokes: the outcomes were not the same for Herschelle Gibbs and Williams, seen here at match-fixing hearings in June 2000

Different strokes: the outcomes were not the same for Herschelle Gibbs and Williams, seen here at match-fixing hearings in June 2000 © Associated Press

In what must have seemed to him an aeon ago, he had been a proud and respected member of a community that is at once adored and distrusted in South Africa's cultural firmament. Coloured people, as they are called and call themselves, endure a slew of stereotypes - that their sense of humour is infallible, whatever the circumstances; that they are born soaked in alcohol and go through life topping themselves up; that every sentence they speak is shot through with profanities; that they are prone to being snared into criminal gangs whose currencies are drugs and knives.

Closer to the truth is that coloureds were not white enough to enjoy the top tier of privilege in apartheid South Africa, and are not black enough to enjoy the sweetest fruits of democracy in the modern age. To be born coloured in South Africa is to be disregarded, except when someone needs to laugh or fancies a drink and a punch-up.

Williams had been that rare thing - the coloured man nobody could argue did not deserve the chances he had earned. He worked hard, took his wickets graciously, did not let success go to his head, and knew that where he came from was where he was going back to, and he was happy with that.

But now he had blown all that. As he sat there, he was, in the eyes of South African cricket, others like him and - most importantly - himself, just another scar of shame for coloured people. The slanting sun brought warmth into the room for most of us. For Henry Williams, it brought a cold, hard, ugly truth.

However long it took him, Williams found his feet, stood up, and life went on, except not for him as an international cricketer. Like Herschelle Gibbs, who was guilty of agreeing to score fewer than 20 in the same match but "forgot" and made 74, he was fined and banned for six months. Unlike Gibbs, Williams was not a precocious talent. He was a decent but not dazzling player, a man who could get the job done but not win games. Williams was expendable, and he never played for South Africa again. But his provincial career continued for four seasons. Since then, he has stayed in coaching and development, and is currently Boland's bowling coach.

Not only had Williams confessed to being a match-fixer, he had admitted to not being much good at match-fixing

Gibbs returned to the international arena as the classic prodigal and remained as susceptible to poor decision-making off the field as ever. Cronje tried and failed to have his life ban overturned, and settled for a desk job with an earth-moving equipment company - in finance, no less - before dying in a plane crash on a misty mountainside on June 1, 2002. Williams went back to what was left of his far smaller life, welcoming the obscurity but not the skewed looks he got from people who had nothing but a second-hand idea of what happened to him.

Then, almost 13 years after Williams' world had ended on that dark afternoon of the soul in Cape Town, he spoke to two reporters - one of them was me, the other ESPNcricinfo's Firdose Moonda - who wanted to know only how he was and what he was doing; not about match-fixing or the King Commission, or if he had regrets, or was glad Cronje was dead. They wanted to know about the Williams he had become. They wanted to write a story of survival.

But Williams did not want to tell that story. He did, however, have quite a tale to tell: about how he had lied to the King Commission on the instruction of his lawyers, about how he and Gibbs had concocted a story to ensure Cronje took the fall. So what had really happened on the fateful day?

"By the time I was in the shower, I heard Cronje in the room speaking to Herschelle but I didn't know what they are talking about. When I put my shirt over my head, he [Cronje] said, 'Hey, let's throw this game.'

"I said, 'Ja [yes], let's throw this game.' Because now he's smiling with me and I'm smiling with him - if you're going to bullshit me I'm going to bullshit you, so fine. There was nothing involved.

"At lunchtime, he came to me and said, 'We scored too many runs.' I looked at him and said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Guys, the deal is off.' I said, 'So what?' But he never spoke to us about money - you're going to get this and you must go for that."

The corrupter: Hansie Cronje at a hearing in Cape Town in June 2000

The corrupter: Hansie Cronje at a hearing in Cape Town in June 2000 © Getty Images

Williams brimmed with bravado as he spoke in the press box at Paarl. Outside, New Zealand were playing a tour match. Sunlight was slanting through the windows.

The ink was hardly dry on the story when Williams called: "My phone won't stop ringing. Now what? What must I do?" Gone was the forthcoming confessor of a few days ago, in his place the shattered shell of a man who grew old with the shadows on that day at the King hearing. The lawyers he implicated were threatening to sue. The story had leapt hemispheres and mediums. Williams was back where he definitely did not feel he belonged.

"It's okay, Henry. Don't worry. This will go on for a few days, but then it will settle down. There is nothing wrong with that story. No one is going to sue you. Everything is going to be fine, but it could be rough for a few days."

At that, Williams allowed himself a modest chuckle, just to see if he could still laugh.

"A few days? But how bad is it going to get?"

The fear in his voice was impossible to misread. He had woken up to the nightmare again.

"No worse than it is now. How bad is it?"

Another laugh from the gallows: "Bad. But you say it will calm down?"

"Yes, it will."

Which, of course, it did, enabling Williams to go back untroubled to coaching Boland's bowlers and immersing himself in his passion, racing pigeons.

But cricket was not quite done with Williams. "Hello," he answered the phone recently. There was bounce and bravado in his greeting, but it was soon snuffed out.

"Hello, Henry. Telford Vice here. We spoke last year in Paarl… "

"Who?"

Coloureds were not white enough to enjoy the top tier of privilege in apartheid South Africa, and not black enough to enjoy the sweetest fruits of democracy

"Umm, we spoke about your racing pigeons... And about the King Commission... Do you remember?"

The laugh gurgled up from the pit of his stomach.

"Yes," Williams said in the voice of a sheep stepping into an abattoir. "Yes, I remember now."

"I'm just trying to find out, Henry, how you're doing. What's going on in your life?"

The silence was frigid with fear. Then: "Why?"

"Because a magazine in India asked me to."

"A magazine in India? Why do they want to know about me?"

"It's India. You know what that's like - anyone who has played at a high level is of interest over there."

Another laugh. "Of interest," he must have thought, "what a joke."

But he said nothing.

"How are your pigeons?"

"They're fine."

"How many do you have now?" "About a hundred racing birds and about 40 for breeding, but I lost my best bird last year - just didn't come back."

"Ah, sorry to hear that. What was the bird's name?"

Whereupon Williams smelt a rat, or at least a story in the making. Not this time. Not ever again.

"Anyway," he said, suddenly hurried and harried, "I've got to go. We're busy with the birds now." Click. Subsequent calls to Williams got no further than his voicemail.

He is, of course, still out there, trying to live the life that he and Cronje destroyed. For days, weeks, months and years he can pretend that that life remains intact, that the events and non-events before, during and after March 19, 2000 never happened. He could convince himself that Cronje is alive and well, behind a desk somewhere, that Cronje never existed, that he never met him, or that Cronje never had the arrogance to assume that Williams and Gibbs would be susceptible to bribery.

But if Williams took the last option, he would have to face an awful fact: Cronje, crooked and corrupt as he was, was also right about him. He would and did do the dishonest thing, the wrong thing, the thing that painted him as a bad man and cast him into a life of denial and pretence. It is, however, Williams' life to live as best he can. He owes no one anything because everything has already been taken from him.

What to get for the man who no longer has anything except a recurring nightmare and a loft full of pigeons? A phone that does not ring with calls from ghosts like me.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa

 

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