3 June 2002
The tragic death of former Protea cricket captain Hansie Cronje, at age 32, stunned South Africa and the cricketing world alike. Cronje was one of South Africa’s most successful cricket captains before his involvement in a betting scandal brought a premature and controversial end to his career.
His death in an aircraft accident on June 1 has united South Africans in shock and forgiveness for Cronje’s part in the scandal.
A born leader, Cronje, the son of former Free State cricketer Ewie Cronje, was tagged as a future national cricket captain while still at school at Bloemfontein’s renowned Grey College. He played three years for Free State Schools and two years for the South African Schools team, captaining the side in 1987 with his close friend Jonty Rhodes as vice-captain.
In the same year, he made his debut for the senior Free State team against Transvaal in Johannesburg.
Cronje quickly established himself as a player to be reckoned with, and when South Africa made its foray back into international cricket in 1991 in India, he was chosen to accompany the side for the experience.
Cronje at the commission of inquiry into match-fixing in cricket
Rising to the challenge of the international game, Cronje turned in a series of domestic performances that could not be ignored, and was chosen to represent South Africa in the 1992 World Cup in Australia. His one-day international debut came in a nine-wicket thrashing of the hosts.
Cronje’s Test debut came in a one-off match against the West Indies in the same year, and in December of 1992 he hit his first Test century, scoring 135 out of a South African first innings total of 275 in Port Elizabeth. His stay at the crease was typical of his determination and drive, lasting almost nine hours, and it played a pivotal role in a South African victory that led to a series win.
In late 1994 Cronje took over the national captaincy from Kepler Wessels, but in his first Test in charge the Proteas were beaten by New Zealand at the Wanderers. South Africa levelled the series in Durban and then, led by centuries from Cronje and Dave Richardson, sealed a series triumph in Cape Town.
Earlier in the same year, Cronje achieved his highest ever first-class score, a magnificent 251 for Free State against Australia in Bloemfontein that included 28 fours and six sixes. The few witnesses to that magnificent knock will undoubtedly never forget it.
Cronje led the Proteas until the match-fixing scandal that would end his career broke in 2000. During that time South Africa achieved some notable victories, including Test series triumphs in both India and Pakistan – something that not even the all-conquering Australians managed.
Cronje played in 68 Tests for South Africa, leading his country on 53 occasions. He scored 3 714 runs at an average of 36.41 and captured 43 wickets – but it was the intangibles of his leadership and toughness that really stood out.
Few who saw him take on the world’s finest spin bowlers, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, can forget his devastating “slog sweep’ that often resulted in the maximum of six runs. As a captain he faced up to the challenge of all comers, helping lift the team to second in the world Test rankings and first in the one-day rankings.
The Hansie I knew
I knew Hansie personally, having faced him many times on the cricket field, and also having been privileged enough to play together with him for Free State Schools and in club cricket. He was a very easy person to like, and playing cricket either with or against him was always a tough and enjoyable experience.
Hansie had a tremendous sense of humour and loved playing practical jokes. He was also always a gentleman, and maintained his humility even with all the pressures that went along with being national cricket captain. Nobody worked harder at cricket than he did, and his example inspired others.
When playing under Hansie, I always felt that the team had an extra confidence and an advantage over the opposition. I, like many others, never had anything but the greatest respect for him.
To demonstrate the kind of guy he was: It was December 1996 and I had just begun a job as a sports reporter with a radio station in Durban. The Proteas were facing India in the first test, and it came as a great surprise to Hansie when I walked in to interview him at the team hotel the day before the start of the Test.
We had a good chat, and he told me to wait next to the stairs leading to the change rooms after play finished the next day.
As it happened, he was at the crease and not out when play came to a close. Still in pads and sweating heavily in the humid climate of Durban, he nonetheless signalled to me to join him around a corner hidden from the sight of others, and there he gave me an exclusive interview – something he was not supposed to do – long before he had showered and attended the official press conference.
That was the Hansie I knew, and I hope that people will begin to see that the good in the man far outweighed the bad, and that his contributions to this country, its people and its cricket were indeed immense and worth so much more than the mistakes he made.
Sadly, Hansie was just beginning to fight back from the devastating blow of his life ban from cricket when his life was cut short. Tributes to him have flowed in from across South Africa and across the world, and former President Nelson Mandela, for one, believed that he would have still managed to play a big role in South Africa’s future.
Mandela said in a statement: “Here was a young man courageously and with dignity rebuilding his life after the setback he suffered a while ago. The manner in which he was doing that, rebuilding his life and public career, promised to make him once more a role model of how one deals with adversity.”
Former South African captain Bob Woolmer, with whom Hansie spent many successful seasons, said: “He was the best captain I had the pleasure of working with. He was a real leader of men. They would have walked off Table Mountain for him. He was a man destined for greatness.
“I will miss him enormously … He has gone to a better place, and I hope he does well in God’s cricket team. To all of us who knew him, this is a terrible day.”
Cronje leaves behind his wife, Bertha.