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This is probably the most unlikely entry in my "sporting heroes" series. But the events surrounding the spectacular rise and fall of the enigmatic former South African cricket captain are so fascinating, tragic and controversial I just had to include him.
Born in the Afrikaner heartland of Bloemfontein, Cronje became captain of the Orange Free State as a 21 year old in 1991. It was a period of huge change for South Africa with their readmission to International sport in 1992 following the fall of apartheid, and Cronje was instantly a mainstay of the South African middle order. By 1994 he was captain of the National side.
Throughout the rest of the 1990s I was a huge fan of Cronje. While his test batting record was moderate, he was an outstanding captain and led his side with toughness, guts, determination and imagination. He was an inspiring leader and a role model for the new "Rainbow nation" that was post-apartheid South Africa. No less a judge than Bob Woolmer rated him the best captain he'd ever worked with, and statistically he is South Africa's most successful captain. Under his guidance, South Africa were the second highest ranked test team in the world (behind Australia). Quite an amazing achievement when you consider their years of sporting isolation.
In 2000, Cronje was skipper of the South African side that played England in the 5th test match at Centurion Park in Pretoria (I have great memories of being at that ground for the test match in 1995). The first three days had been rained out, leaving no chance of a result on the final two days. That is until Cronje proposed a deal to Nasser Hussain, the English captain. He offered to make a game of it on the last day - that both sides would forfeit an innings, thus setting up a run chase. This had never been done before in test cricket and Cronje offered England a target of 250 from 70 overs. Hussain accepted, and England won a nailbiting game with two wickets and only 5 balls left (South Africa had already won the series). Cronje was heralded and applauded as an innovative captain.
However, events later that year shone a much different light on those actions. In April of 2000, Indian police claimed they had a recording of Cronje talking to Indian betting syndicates about match fixing. It was an absurd claim - if you were to pick anyone in the cricketing world least likely to be involved in match fixing it would be Hansie Cronje.
But a few days later Cronje shocked the world by admitting providing "match information" and "forecasting results" to bookies in return for cash. He was instantly sacked from the National team, and more and more information came to light as the cricket world watched in shock. Allegations included his payment to other players in the team to underperform, which led to year-long bans for two players, and team meetings to discuss throwing matches for cash. Finally it was revealed that the "innovative" declaration at Centurion park was motivated by a cash inducement to ensure a shock result (hence allowing gambling syndicates "in the know" to clean up on huge odds).
The spectacle of such a respected cricketer brought so low was devastating for the sport. Cronje received a life ban from any involvement with cricket, and the web of match fixing eventually extended to players from several other Countries as well as some umpires and officials. It really made cricket sit up and take notice.
If the story ended there it would indeed be a dramatic one. But it doesn't. In 2002, Cronje's scheduled flight home from Johannesburg to George had been grounded, so he hitched a lift as the only passenger on a cargo plane. He never made it as the plane crashed into the Outeniqua mountains near George. Cronje and the two pilots were killed instantly. He was 32 years old. Was he murdered? We will probably never know, but there are undoubtedly many people grateful that he took his secrets to the grave.
So there's Hansie Cronje - for so many years one of my favorite cricketers. But why does he make my sporting heroes list, and why did he leave such an impression on me? Maybe I just enjoy interesting characters. Maybe because it's so rare we see the human flaws behind our sporting icons. Maybe it's the tragedy of such an admired sportsman selling out his talent for a fistful of dollars.