It's not cricket, but Cronje's story is compulsive viewing


IF YOU wanted the name of a better-than-average referee to stick on the bottom of your CV, you couldn't do better than request the help of Nelson Mandela, the only saint alive on earth. But let's face it, you'd be lucky if the great man obliged – unless you happened to be a South African sportsman so brilliant, upright and noble, you were anointed by Mandela, without even having to ask.

In Paul Yule's gripping film Not Cricket: Hansie Cronje (BBC4) the then South African president was shown in the late 1990s, endorsing his country's captain. "It has not been easy to crawl out of the devastating isolation which has lasted for decades," said Mandela, who had himself crawled out of the devastating isolation of Robben Island, in 1990, co-incidentally during Mike Gatting's rebel tour of South Africa. "I must congratulate in particular Hansie Cronje for the excellent manner in which he has led the team."

But even at the time of this little homily, Cronje was already working for bookmakers – as he had since around 1996 – and soon afterwards he was keeping alive a test match against England, at the request of bookie Marlon Aronstam, by taking the unprecedented step of forfeiting an innings on the fourth evening of a rain-effected match.

The last day's play that resulted allowed more than 2,000 punters in far away India to place bets of $100 or more against a whole series of possibilities, including runs scored in 10-over periods, wickets falling through the course of the day and on the result of the match. Millions of dollars were wagered, said Aronstam – who had the self-satisfied look of a man who never failed to give in to any of his own appetites – and for his pains, Cronje received the gift of a leather jacket, and 500,000 rand for the charity of his choice.

It didn't seem much recompense. But by then this former public school boy, who was born into wealth, had already accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds in bribes. "I do like money, I'm not trying to get away from that," he told the King Commission which later investigated corruption in South African cricket.

Cronje used the same power of leadership, which had made him lauded as a captain, to corrupt his team-mates, and relied on the power of money to do the rest. "Every man has his price – if anyone's interested, mine's a million pounds sterling," said the former test bowler Brian McMillan, who was not one of the players charged with corruption.

Cronje was only caught by a fluke. On tour in India he'd borrowed the phone of another man who was already being investigated by the police. Detectives listening in were amazed to hear a South African discussing match fixing with a distant accomplice. Even then, Cronje would have got away with it, if he had denied everything, said Aronstam. But he didn't, and the wreck of the man that next appeared on camera already knew his career was over.

Journalist Telford Vice watched that press conference. "He was almost physically smaller," remembered Vice. "You could see in his face, there was a change. He wasn't the bulletproof figure he'd been."

Cronje died, aged 32, on June 1, 2002, the only passenger in a cargo plane that crash into mountains. In life, his record of 27 victories in 53 Tests made him South Africa's most successful captain, and the fourth-highest ranked captain in Test history. In death, he still believed that he had never actually thrown a game. "As God is my witness," he told his friend Bob Woolmer, shortly before the fatal flight, "I never fixed a match."

Woolmer appeared to believe him, but within weeks of contributing to Yule's film, he too had died in Jamaica, apparently of natural causes but amid sensational allegations that he had been murdered because of his own involvement in betting.

Viewers inclined to conspiracy theories would have been encouraged in their opinions by the final contribution of the smug Aronstam: "They'll never clean up cricket – there's way too much money involved." Surely not. I mean, who's going to bet on this current New Zealand team actually winning a game?

But if you are, there's probably a man in India who'll give you very good odds.

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