Cricket, like baseball or boxing, is a sport that particularly lends itself to great writing, and has a terrific literary canon all of its own.
There are many reasons for this: the tactical and technical intricacies of the game, its long history, the empire-colony aspect which assumes significance whenever England play anybody, the great controversies from bodyline (violent quick bowling at the batsman’s body and head in an attempt to intimidate him – now accepted practice, but once as divisive as an Iraq invasion) to sledging (verbal insults designed to produce ‘mental disintegration’ of opponents, as Australia captain Steve Waugh memorably put it), the way the slow pace allows matches to ebb and flow, and unfold their drama gradually.
But I suspect the key reason is that cricket, like baseball, while nominally a team game, is really all about individuals: how they react to pressure, their physical and mental bravery, their often-vicious personal rivalries with particular opponents. In every Test match here are myriad contests within the contest, as bowlers, batsmen and captains try to impose their will upon each other.
It also helps that the game has seen some great, colourful, larger-than-life characters. But one of the most fascinating stories of recent times revolved around a man with a reputation for dourness, straight-down-the-line decency, and strong Christian convictions.
Tim de Lisle – former Wisden editor, writes in the Times today about the fifth anniversary of the cricket match that ultimately led to the downfall and disgrace of one of the sport’s great national heroes, South Africa captain Hansie Cronje:
IT WAS five years ago yesterday. The fifth Test between South Africa and England at Centurion was drifting towards the dullest of draws. South Africa, batting first, had been stuck on 155 for six through three solid days of rain. Never mind a dead rubber, it was a dead loss.
But then Hansie Cronje went to Nasser Hussain (the England captain), suggested that they “make a game of it”, and offered a deal: two forfeitures and a target for England of 255 from 73 overs. Faced with a proposal unprecedented in 123 years of Test cricket (Hussein accepted)… England staggered to victory by two wickets with two balls to spare. When Cronje returned to the pavilion, Hussain shook his hand and said: “What you did today was good for the game.”
Hussain was far from alone….
(But) a note of dissent was struck by Sunil Gavaskar, the former India batsman. “If it had been Pakistan doing this,” Gavaskar asked, “would they have been accused of fixing the match? Integrity seems to be the copyright of certain developed countries. I am not prepared to buy that.”
Gavaskar can be an anodyne commentator, but you had to admire his willingness to speak up here and his sense of smell. The rest of us ignored the warning signs …We wanted to believe that a man whose one flaw as a captain seemed to be a certain dourness had grabbed the opportunity, with nothing to lose, to polish his image.
The ICC itself said nothing, which seemed feeble but turned out to be wise. Cronje himself said: “If they are unhappy, then I want to get out of the game.” A novelist would have struggled to pack more irony into one line.
Three months later, Cronje...(was) charged by police in Delhi with cheating, fraud and criminal conspiracy relating to match-fixing and betting. Cronje hotly denied it. “I am stunned. The allegations are completely without substance,” he said. But four days later, he made a tearful 3am phone call to his boss, Dr Ali Bacher, admitting that he had been “dishonest” and had taken money for “information and forecasting”, although not, he insisted, for throwing matches. He was dismissed and never played again.
He appeared before Judge King’s commission, only to give a glazed, unreal performance. He came cleanest about the Centurion Test, confessing to taking 53,000 rands (about £5,000) and a leather jacket for his wife, Bertha, from a bookmaker, Marlon Arondstam, in return for ensuring a definite result. But the commission was wound up with indecent haste by a Government unable to cope with the downfall of a national hero. When Cronje died in a plane crash in 2002, his secrets were buried with him. He is believed to have had 70 overseas bank accounts.
To understand the impact of Cronje’s disgrace, you’d have to understand the esteem in which he was held in his homeland. Imagine it turned out that Muhammed Ali had bribed Foreman to lose the Rumble in the Jungle, and you’re on the right lines.
This was a man that people thought they knew, but they didn’t. His straight bat, quiet demeanour and veneer of upright sportsmanship belied a Lear-like hubris.
De Lisle, benefiting from hindsight, concludes with this observation:
I met Cronje once, in the South Africa players’ viewing area at a warm-up game in Canberra. On a light-hearted occasion, he stood out from his team with his stern expression and heavy physical presence. I was writing a preview of South Africa’s 1998 tour of England and asked him if he had learnt a lot from the year he spent with Leicestershire. Yes, he said, but it had been a two-way process. No doubt it had, but he said it too quickly, too certainly.
He did have one crucial flaw and it wasn’t dourness. It was hubris, a mixture of greed, arrogance, control-freakery and breathtaking hypocrisy, given that he wore a bracelet inscribed WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” His fall was a tragedy that is affecting South Africa still.