Cronje and D’Oliveira: same country different planet

Two documentaries on Monday evening [2 June], one about Hansie Cronje and one about Basil D’Oliveira, proved conclusively that sport remains the finest polygraph test known to man. You can tell the world who you think you are, you can write about who you think you are, and agents and PR schmoozers can erect around you screens of puff and nonsense, but the playing of sport – and especially international sport with all its intrusiveness – will reveal you in the end exactly as you are.

Few modern cricketers were born with more sense of entitlement than Cronje. Not just white and Afrikaner, in a country where those twin classifications automatically conferred a sense of superiority, but white, Afrikaner and privileged, too, because he attended Grey College, that bastion of sporting and educational excellence in the heart of the Free State.

Few modern cricketers were as image-conscious as Cronje. There were television adverts in which he, woodenly and without irony, encouraged his fellow citizens to ‘be fair in sport; be fair in life and don’t do crime’. There were statesmanlike public speeches, during which he portrayed himself as a leader of the new and improved Rainbow Nation. And there was, of course, the wristband on which he had inscribed WWJD (What Would Jesus Do), which told the world that he was on ‘the right side’.

By the time Cronje left the witness stand at the end of the King Commission on match-fixing in June 2000, in tears and physically broken, able to walk only with the support of two helpers, we knew that he was also a liar and a match-fixer and manipulative beyond measure. Self-revelation had come to him at last, too, as he told the commission he was ‘driven by greed and stupidity’.

D’Oliveira was born in Bo-Kaap, the Malay quarter in Cape Town, at a place called Signal Hill. The beautiful surroundings, in the shadow of the majestic Table Mountain, were not matched by the opportunities on offer. At 17, when most cricketers are just beginning to spread their wings, D’Oliveira was told that, because of his colour, he was not recognised as part of the ‘official’ sporting landscape and, in time, he was forced to leave his homeland to fulfil his ambitions.

The D’Oliveira documentary was based on Peter Oborne’s award-winning book, some of the details of which have stayed with me long after its reading. Such as the ‘pencil test’, the measure by which non-white cricketers were classified according to colour. Once placed in the hair, if a pencil stayed there you were classified as ‘black’; if it fell out you were ‘coloured’. Or the bruises on D’Oliveira’s arm caused by his wife’s frightened grip as they sat in a cinema in England alongside whites for the first time. Or the look of confusion on D’Oliveira’s face as, on his arrival in this country, he looked around the immigration area in vain for the queue marked ‘non-whites’.

But whereas Cronje was unable to live up to the expectations of birth and his own image-building, D’Oliveira beat the system and the low expectations of others. Forty-three years after he left his homeland, D’Oliveira returned to lead the parade of South Africa’s greatest living sportsmen at the start of the 2003 World Cup at Newlands, a ground where, as a young man, he had been forbidden to play.

The Cronje documentary was important because there has been, and is, a concerted effort in South Africa to rehabilitate him as a role model and icon. In a poll to find the greatest South Africans conducted by SABC, the broadcaster, in 2004, Cronje came in at No 11. (He was just ahead of Hendrik Verwoerd, the founder of apartheid, which gives some idea of the type of person who voted.)   Now Frans Cronje is to release a film about his brother. Commenting on its scheduled release this September, Frans had this to say: ‘It looks at Hansie the captain and the hero for his team and his country, Hansie the fallen angel and Hansie the man of strength who could, after overcoming depression, find the strength to come back and remake his life.’  Given that the blurb recounts how, within four years, Cronje had moulded South Africa into the world’s best Test and one-day team, despite winning very little of substance, the film is likely to be more fiction than fact.

It was, ultimately, the playing of sport that revealed the truth about Cronje and D’Oliveira. Modern international captains come into contact with all kinds and Cronje was unable to resist the charms of sycophants and money men. The most horrific example was his manipulation of two of the most vulnerable players on his team, Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams. Both were offered $15,000 (about £10,000) to underperform in a one-day international in India, not knowing that their captain had taken a cut of $10,000 for himself.

Then there was also the team meeting in India in 1996 during which Cronje tried to persuade his players to accept an offer of $200,000 (about £130,000) to throw a one-day international. It took four team meetings for the offer to be rejected, meetings at which (I have been reliably informed by those who were in it) the essential distinction between right and wrong became blurred. One player asked, in all seriousness, whether the money would be taxed. Bob Woolmer, the coach at the time, was quoted as saying he thought it was a sign that his team had finally ‘come of age’ on the world stage, now that they were receiving the same kind of offers as other top teams. Thank God England were crap.

D’Oliveira faced similar temptations in 1968. Rothmans (acting, Oborne says, at the behest of the South African government) offered D’Oliveira £4,000 and considerable perks to coach in South Africa during that winter. The snag was that he had to make himself unavailable for the England tour that year. It was, in effect, a bribe to prevent him from touring and so prevent the kind of problems that ultimately led to that tour’s postponement.

The money was huge for the time (four times more than a county contract) and when the offer was made D’Oliveira was out of the Test team. It must have been tempting. But the sacrifices made by his friends at St. Augustine’s Cricket Club in Cape Town, who partly funded his initial trip to Britain, mattered more. It was their dream that D’Oliveira would one day walk out at Newlands as a Test player, the most visible way of ridiculing apartheid. D’Oliveira turned down the money.

The documentaries intended to show the changing face of South African sport and society, pre- and post-apartheid. For me, they simply shone a light on humanity and how sport reveals the essence of it. South Africa arrive in Britain this month for a four-Test series that is played for a trophy named after one of these two players; not the man from the Free State who enjoyed every advantage, but the man from Signal Hill who enjoyed none. The Times, 5 June 2008