A man applies paint to a billboard image of Hansie Cronje as a sign of protest

Hansie Cronje: painted villain or airbrushed hero?

© AFP/Getty Images

Hate to Love

I love Hansie Cronje and I don't know why

Admiring him was easy, forgiving him not hard

James Borrowdale  |  

It was the middle of a New Zealand summer that felt endless in the way only those of childhood can. We spent the breathlessly hot days beachside, and then - when the wind picked up in the afternoon and sprinkled the sea off Nelson's Tahunanui Beach with white caps, the picnic box now emptied of its sand-gritted sandwiches and sun-warmed soft drinks - it was home to watch the cricket. I was 12, 1998 had just dawned, and the Carlton and United Series featuring Australia, New Zealand and South Africa was underway across the Tasman Sea; the beneficence of the time difference meant my installation in front of the TV in our rented holiday home seemed always to coincide with the beginning of the near-daily match.

My team, of course, was New Zealand. But it very easily might not have been. As the last tortured throes of apartheid plunged South Africa into chaos, my parents, like so many others with the means to do so, had emigrated. By the time of my first birthday, my father had followed a job to New Zealand, and Christchurch - that flat, dull, southern city - became our new home. Naturally, then, when my cricketing consciousness dawned, it announced itself in the colours of our adopted country.

But as that series wore on, and New Zealand faded from reckoning, a kind of personal atavism shunted me into South Africa's corner. Gary Kirsten was basically invincible, carving through and over gully all summer long. Lance Klusener and - even more thrillingly, somehow - Pat Symcox made attacking forays up the order, in an ODI age when pinch-hitting was considered the domain of more expendable batsmen. Daryll Cullinan duelled haplessly with Shane Warne, and then with Mark Waugh. A phalanx of allrounders demoted even the fine batsmanship of wicketkeeper Dave Richardson to No. 10 in the order. Allan Donald, furiously, and Shaun Pollock, almost politely, led the attack, with Makhaya Ntini, the first black African to play for his country, making his debut during the series. The Proteas entered the best-of-three finals series having lost only one game. Brooding over that success, swarthy good looks in the shadow of those significant eyebrows, was Hansie Cronje.

Perhaps no contemporary cricketer has so easily passed into the realm of mythology. Cronje, it seems, was redeemed in the eyes of many by his violent, fiery death

In memory I see him in the red-sleeved kit of that series, remonstrating forcefully with umpires, running towards the bowling crease with strangely delicate steps, swatting spinners contemptuously over midwicket. But memory, of course, is fallible: now, when I look at the records, I see he didn't score as many runs as I thought and didn't take a single wicket all series. Somehow, in the mixing bowl of my prepubescent memory, that series has been assigned as the scene of his greatest hits - a furious assault against Shane Warne and a >rapid century against New Zealand that had both occurred years earlier. That scowling, eyebrow-knitted intensity forced Cronje to the forefront of my perception, and those misallocations were, perhaps, my mind's attempt to make sense of his position there.

That tournament was one of the last series I followed with that level of obsession. Childhood was drawing to a close, taking those summers with it. My own juvenile cricketing career - as a bowler whose deliveries traced a steep parabola through the air and a batsman so dour I once opened and carried my bat through a 20-over match, ending with my highest ever score of 28 - survived only one or two more seasons. As I entered adolescence, my kit bag became permanently installed under my bed - now a hiding place for illicitly procured vodka. Guitar, socialising, and general teenage despondency replaced cricket as the central creeds of my existence.

When, then, in 2000, it was uncovered that Cronje's visage of concentration might have been hiding calculations far more nefarious than bowling changes, fielding restrictions and required run rates, I met it with not much more than a shrug. When, later that year, the King Commission of Inquiry began to uncover the details of Cronje's crimes, I shrugged again. With life no longer lived in an obsessive orbit around cricket, what did it matter to me that Cronje once connived to reconfigure a Test match in exchange for a leather jacket, or that he cajoled two team-mates into agreeing to underperform?

Memories and perceptions serve to form an image of Cronje that doesn't always take his failings into account

Memories and perceptions serve to form an image of Cronje that doesn't always take his failings into account © Getty Images

It wasn't until my early 20s - guitar all but given up, vodka now purchased legally - that cricket once again came to top my list of interests; it was only then I began to read how Cronje's "unfortunate love of money" coaxed him, this ostensibly pious man, outside the parameters of his stodgy Protestantism. How the two team-mates he corrupted, Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams, were, as players of colour in racially fragile post-apartheid South Africa, two of his most vulnerable charges. How he had apparently told the bookie he needed US$25,000 to secure their services, but agreed to pay them $15,000 and planned to pocket the difference. That his first indiscretion had been in 1996. The number of offshore bank accounts under his name, the less savoury aspects of his character, the sense of self-importance evident when he portrayed himself as a battlefield on which a divine conflict was being fought: "In a moment of stupidity and weakness I allowed Satan and the world to dictate terms to me... The moment I took my eyes off Jesus my whole world turned dark and it felt like someone had stuck a knife through my chest."

The eschatological tone is appropriate: perhaps no contemporary cricketer has so easily passed into the realm of mythology. Cronje, it seems, was largely redeemed in the eyes of many by his violent, fiery death: a succession of former team-mates - indeed, a large proportion of that 1997-98 team - latterly speaking out about this supposedly great man, this great leader of men.

I'm not sure about any of that. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" the novelist EM Forster once wrote, and when I pitched Cronje as the subject of this essay to the Cricket Monthly's editors, I said I would apply a similar formula: over the course of 1200 words or so I'd figure out why my affection for Cronje remains largely undimmed - against reason - by his crimes.

The truth is, I still don't really know. Instead of condemning him for casting aspersions on the team that was a catalyst for an internal dialogue about my own South African heritage, I envision him as the human embodiment of that team. The force of Cronje's personality meant he and the Proteas became intertwined in my mind; perhaps my enduring respect for Cronje is just a misplaced love of a team that never gave up and could seemingly win from anywhere - a trait well in evidence over that summer, the engine room of my affection.

But not in the finals. After not once losing to Australia previously over the course of the summer, South Africa lost the best-of-three decider. Cronje's real legacy, outside the maze of my own mind, is that a series like that one will - despite nothing but Cronje's involvement to indicate anything untoward - forever be tainted by the possibility of match-fixing. And, despite how I feel about him, that is exactly how it should be.

James Borrowdale is an Auckland-based journalist, essayist, and travel writer