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June 15, 2000


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Much ado about too little

Prem Panicker

This was the one we were all waiting for. Hansie Cronje, former captain of South Africa, emerging from the fortified confines of his Fancourt villa to spill the beans in public.

After listening to Cronje speak for an hour and a bit, the feeling I got was of having been one of the many midwives as a mighty mountain laboured long and hard -- and produced a mouse.

In fact, the most interesting point of the day came before Cronje had even taken the stand. When, as part of the prelude, South Africa's minister for sport, N G Conde Balfour, pointed out that UCBSA administrators had known of attempts at match-fixing and chosen to remain silent, and that this warranted a strong, separate investigation into the officials themselves. As you heard that statement, you couldn't help but contrast it to the Indian attitude -- where everyone from Jagmohan Dalmiya on up, or down (depends how you view the ICC chairman, really) knows that all is not well with the game; where they chose to do nothing about it, on the pretext that the CBI is looking into it; and where the prime minister of the country, on his personal website, has run for the last 3 weeks and more a poll asking readers whether they think there really is any need for a full inquiry into match-fixing.

To get to the main act, what exactly has Cronje said? The main points, in sum, are:

1) That he is sorry for what he has done, and will never play cricket again.

2) That Herschelle Gibbs deserves a second chance.

3) That at several times he has had approaches from various fixers; that he has taken money from various people at various times; that he was introduced to one of the fixers by Salim Malik, and that another fixer identified himself as a friend of Mohammad Azharuddin's.

4) And finally, that at no time during his tenure has South Africa thrown a game, Test or ODI.

Duh! What then is the fuss all about?

Take item one. Cronje will never play cricket again, he volunteers. Sorry if this sounds cynical -- the cynicism has after all been bred into us by the cricket establishment itself -- but that is nothing more or less than a pity play. Once Cronje admitted to talking to bookies, to discussing match-fixing, and to having taken shady money, his career was finished anyway. From that point on, there was no way South Africa could have picked Cronje to represent it on the cricket field. So this was just a case of getting out before being booted out -- nothing more, nothing less.

Herschelle Gibbs deserving a second call is a value call for the UCBSA and the ICC to make. If the cricket bodies are serious about stamping out this evil, if they mean what they said when, in the code of conduct, they specified that anyone who has talked to a bookmaker, or discussed fixing, or accepted money to shade his performance, should be banned for life, then that is pretty much that.

Cronje's naming of Salim Malik, at this point in the game, means nothing -- Malik has already been judged guilty by the Justice Quayyum commission, and banned for life from the game.

That leaves the other statement -- that Hamid Cassim introduced himself to Cronje as Mohammad Azharuddin's friend. Also, that Azhar introduced him to one Mukesh Gupta, who offered Cronje money to fix the game.

Nowhere, at this point, is there a direct link between Cronje, Azhar, and fixing. Azhar's defence, at this point in time, could well be that he introduced Gupta in good faith, not knowing what the latter does for a living, and further, that he is not responsible for whatever claims Cassim made.

Having said that, it needs bearing in mind that the public naming of Azhar by Cronje is merely the beginning of the story. To follow, is Cronje's cross-questioning, when the Edwin King Commission resumes hearings on Monday. And it will be very strange if Cronje is not asked to detail these two incidents. It will be shoddy lawyering if no one asks him whether, to his best knowledge, Azhar was aware that Cassim was going to approach him and had in fact allowed the use of his name by way of introduction; also, about whether Azhar, when he spoke to him on the phone, made any indication of what Gupta wanted to speak to Cronje about.

But more interesting is the fact that next week, Hamid Cassim is scheduled to come before the King Commission. And that is when this particular aspect of the Cronje testimony will be probed in detail. Till date, various Indian players and officials have been portraying Cassim as a gent who supplies them with desi food when the team travels in South Africa. Now, for the first time, Cronje has named Cassim as a man who, along with the other suspect, Sanjay Chawla, offered him money to fix a game.'

That statement now puts the onus on Cassim, when it is his turn to depose. And it is at this point that Cassim's links with Azhar, if any, will be explored, exposed, further.

As far as Cronje's own confession, in relation to Azhar, what it has done is simply add one more little niggle of doubt against the former Indian captain.

Finally, there is Cronje, having sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, testifying that during his tenure, South Africa has not, individually or collectively, thrown away any international fixture.

That one sticks in the craw, remaining obstinately unswallowed. For starters, Cronje says that he discussed a fix with Klusener, Gibbs and Kallis for the Cochin ODI. And then adds that he "couldn't do anything" because the Indian wicket-keeper dropped three catches.

This part of his testimony is unclear, and will need to be probed during cross examination. For starters, does his statement imply that he was trying to do something but was stymied by the blunders made by the Indian wicket-keeper?

This is one aspect of Cronje's testimony, thus, that makes no sense and requires probing during the cross-examination phase to follow.

Leaving that aside for now, and returning to Cronje's sworn statement that South Africa, individually or collectively, had never indulged in a fix during his tenure, the statement is directly contradicted by the tapes now in possession of the Delhi police.

The first part of the conversation indicates that Cronje has, "playing with him" -- which, in context, clearly means involved in the fix -- Strydom, Boje, Gibbs, and Cronje himself.

Fine, give Cronje the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was fibbing to Sanjay, when he indicated that Gibbs, Boje and Strydom were involved.

Cronje has said he merely helped forecast results. But what does he do, in this conversation? He "forecasts" that Gibbs will score less than 20. Gibbs in fact scores 19, and finally succeeds in getting out after two bits of recklessness earlier in the innings went unpunished.

Cronje says that Boje will bat up the order and go cheap. Boje goes for 14, batting at number 3. And so on.

If we accept Cronje at his word and agree that he was merely forecasting what would happen, if from that we go on to say that Cronje is such a brilliant reader of the game that he could predict just how many runs players would score, then tell me this -- why are we making such a fuss over Nostradamus? Why not ask Cronje, while the spirit is still with him, to forecast when, on what date, the world will come to an end, so we can all make our plans accordingly?

Sorry -- this one sticks. And will need extensive probing. For which we will now need to wait till Monday, when proceedings resume.

Prem Panicker

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