Hansie: The story never dies

Just when you thought it was safe to go back on to the field, yet more light is shed on Hansie Cronje and the extraordinary abuse of power that was his ultimate undoing. A new documentary film, commissioned by the BBC and screened last Monday, contains fascinating new insights into the charismatic former South Africa captain’s capitulation to the lure of lucre.

Though the biographical elements are interesting, Not Cricket 2: The Bookmaker and The Captain, represents more of an anatomy of graft and greed. It’s a modern fable of leadership, with painful lessons for contemporary South Africa as, caught between the rock and the hard place of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, it yearns for a new ‘great” leader.

Exclusive interviews adorn the analysis: former Proteas’ all-rounder Brian McMillan speaks for the first time; and Cronje’s coach, Bob Woolmer, gives his last interview before his untimely death at last year’s Cricket World Cup, about which he notes, poignantly, ‘what will be, will be”.

Woolmer, it seems, was still in thrall to Cronje. ‘He was the greatest leader I’ve ever worked with. He had everything”, he tells Paul Yule, the documentary filmmaker who also made The Basil D’Oliveira Conspiracy. Wistful though Woolmer appears on tape, there is no less anger or recrimination in response to Cronje’s betrayal of the game that Woolmer cherished. If he was blissfully unaware of Cronje’s wrong-doing, why was he not more agitated by it? Or had he turned a blind eye?

‘Hansie Cronje was a great motivator—but that made him a great manipulator. If he found your weakness, he could manipulate that. Bob Woolmer was under his control,” says Professor Tim Noakes, the respected sports scientist who worked with them both.

Besides, ‘everything” was apparently not enough for Cronje. Despite the cloistered privilege of his upbringing, the sense of destiny and leadership that was instilled in him from an early age, he wanted more.

Inevitably perhaps, given his own stake in his upbringing and its legacy, another apologist for Cronje, Johan Volsteedt, his school coach and mentor, tells us that ‘when money talks, even the angels listen”.

What is it that drives the sentimental claptrap that perpetually denies the truth about Hansie Cronje—that he was not a great leader but a pathetic money-grabbing slave to sleazy bookmakers who abused his power by exploiting the weakness of callow young players, such as Herschelle Gibbs, and thus further undermining the transformation of South African cricket?

Perhaps this is too harsh. Everyone has his price, as McMillan observes with a rueful smile, when he provides a detailed account of the offers made before the 1996 fifth one-day international versus India (which is, by the way, entirely fresh evidence not encompassed by the King Commission of inquiry into match-fixing that the Cronje scandal spawned).

‘My price,” McMillan says, ‘is $1-million.” And so to the briber. Corrupt leaders cannot do it alone. It takes two to tango. Enter the reptilian Marlon Aronstam, a man for whom the words ‘oily” and ‘amoral” could have been invented. It’s like watching a lion devour a bok: gruesome but captivating. The Bookmaker. The Exploiter of Weak Men.

Aronstam, it turns out, was surprised at just how low Cronje’s price was. Not McMillan’s $1-million, but a paltry R30 000. Oh, and the infamous leather jacket. This was the night before the dramatic finale to the last Test between South Africa and England at Centurion in January 2000. In unprecedented fashion both teams forfeited an innings, after rain had washed out much of the first four days, to procure a result.

Now we know why, of course. I remember watching and celebrating a rare England victory. But it was contaminated, of course. ‘I was shocked he’d even seen me,” says Aronstam in his first public exposition of the events. ‘My friends told me cricket’s a straight game. I told them something’s wrong. He [Cronje] said he’d not bought a present for his wife so I gave him a leather jacket and 30 grand. He was ecstatic. He was listening to what I was telling him to do. He said ‘we can organise to throw a game in India’.” And so the slide into the abyss gathered pace.

Now there’s 20/20 and the showbiz Indian Premier League has ploughed vast new cash into the game. As I watched Shane Warne steward the Rajasthan Royals to a deserved victory last Sunday night, I could not help but ask: is it cleaner or dirtier now that there is all this money around? Paradoxically, perhaps the former, with a last word to The Bookmaker, Aronstam: ‘Until they pay cricketers properly, they’ll never clean cricket out.” In this sense alone Cronje was a man before his time.

  • The Bookmaker and The Captain will be screened by Supersport/DStv later this year.

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