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Remembering Hansie Cronje

Rohan Kallicharan recalls childhood memories of time spent with Hansie Cronje, 10 years on from the former South Africa captain’s death. 

Even in the latter part of 1987, some two-and-a-half years before the release of Nelson Mandela, cricket was playing its part in the wind of change blowing through the Boer heart of South Africa. The domain of the conservative Afrikaner, Vrystaat was the last place you expected to see this, but, as one commentator put it, “Team bonhomie was cutting through the cords of separatism”. The names Alvin Kallicharran, Sylvester Clarke and Franklyn Stephenson had become household names in this most traditional bastion of apartheid, and whether they liked it or not, these men were becoming a part of the country.

I was 13 years old when I first arrived in Bloemfontein. It was an unnerving moment for me in truth – I had spent several winters in Johannesburg during my father’s time with Transvaal (now Gauteng), a place in which he had become a hero for what he did on the pitch and how he carried himself off it. But I was no longer a seven-year-old stepping into a big adventure; I was a teenager with political awareness, albeit limited, but with enough intelligence to know that this was going to be a very different journey altogether – a step into a menacing unknown.

I knew the voice of Ewie Cronje, the then president of the Orange Free State Cricket Union. It was he who had persuaded my father to take this step where Asians had previously not ventured. What Ewie sold to my father in persuading him to come was a family philosophy, and he was accurate in that description. Upon arriving in Bloemfontein on that warm Saturday of December 1987, Dad was already at net practice, a ritual even on ‘days off’. Feeding the bowling machine for him was a young man by the name of Allan Donald, whom I knew from back in England.

Also in attendance were Ewie and his eldest son Frans. From there, we were introduced to the rest of the family: San-Marie and Hester, and even the two dogs, Sasha and Binky, who quickly became my pals. The only absentee was the youngest son, Hansie. Aged 18, he was competing for Orange Free State in the Nuffield Week competition, a tournament bringing together the best young talent from across South Africa. After the competition Hanise was chosen to captain the SA Schools team against a full Free State XI, which included the likes of Donald, Corrie Van Zyl and Bradley Player, amongst others.

He scored a mature century that day and it was on the following morning, after his peers had departed, that I met him. Even aged 18, he was an imposing figure – tall and lean – but I found him, like the rest of the family, to be cut from the finest cloth. Humble, personable and thoughtful. A truly nice guy.

Over the next six weeks the Cronje family home became like a second home for me. Yes, things were changing, but despite my parents’ silence, I knew full well about the ‘additional security’ on the University Campus where we were living. Day after day was spent totally absorbed in cricket, and that was exactly as Hansie and I wanted it. Frans was passionate about the game, as were the rest of the family, but Hansie shared my obsession.

It was one of the great privileges of growing up in a cricketing household that I could attend net practices and watch Sylvester Clarke and Allan Donald bowling to Alvin Kallicharran and Allan Lamb. I loved it and I was a keen student of the game, but Hansie was quickly becoming a professor. Part of his education in cricket was a trip to England in 1988 and Frans, Ewie and Hansie all stopped at our place in Birmingham. Again, it was a thrill to get home from school and run straight over to the nets to find Dad, Hansie and AD hard at work. For me, this was discipleship.

As before, Hansie was a shy but very friendly individual, different in some ways to the slightly more outgoing Frans. He was a sporting fanatic and that summer of 1988 was a perfect time to visit with the arrival of the West Indies (still in their majestic pomp), Wimbledon, and the European Championships. It was sporting paradise, and we loved every moment.

Over the next few years, the world watched on as South Africa rose from the sporting wilderness like a phoenix from the ashes amidst the goodwill of political change. I watched on with great happiness to see people that I knew well, Hansie in particular, establish himself as a key member of the new side after readmission. Frans visited us very briefly in 1993 and told us of his brother’s happiness and the changes sweeping through his beautiful country. By this time Dad had retired and our visits to South Africa were less frequent. Inevitably, especially in a pre-Internet era and at a time where my eyes had turned from cricket towards beer and girls, contact was fleeting.

That said, little seemed to have changed when I next saw Hansie in 1998 at Edgbaston. On the day before the opening Test of the South African tour of England, Hansie was running to the pre-match press conference, slightly late I think, but he stopped in his tracks when he saw my mother and I and came over to check on us and see if we needed tickets. For me, that was typical Hansie. Always with time for others, even now when he was a household name on a global scale and held in almost regal esteem in South Africa.

Hansie Cronje – former South Africa captain
Cronje raises his bat after making 126 at Trent Bridge on South Africa’s 1998 tour of England

The last time I saw him was in 1999, the day after the heartbreaking World Cup semi-final defeat to Australia, again at Edgbaston. He looked a broken man but still found time for a chat and a smile. At this stage none of us could have had any idea of the controversy that would engulf cricket just a year later. I watched on, dumbfounded, as the match-fixing scandal broke; disbelieving that this seemingly spiritual and humble man could be drawn into such a scandal, tearing away at the moral fabric of cricket. It could not be true. But it was.

My heart went out to the rest of the family for what they were going through. And yes, for a while, I was deeply upset at what had happened. But time does heal and I was delighted to see him begin to rebuild his life. I knew I would be in South Africa for the 2003 World Cup and was looking forward to renewing acquaintances with the entire Cronje family. That hope was of course shattered on Saturday June 1, 2002 – my 28th birthday – when my own celebrations were crushed as news began to filter through about the plane crash in the Western Cape.

I never had the opportunity nor the desire to discuss what had happened with him. He paid the most horrible price and I suspect that he was far from alone in the crimes he committed. We all know right from wrong, and nobody can justify his actions, but it is not my place to judge and I will always remember the thoughtful young man whom I knew as a teenager, and was proud to consider my friend.

Click here to read Rohan Kallicharan’s memories of Malcolm Marshall

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