It was a sunny, if chilly Friday afternoon in my booklined study, in Centurion, South Africa, ten years ago today when the telephone rang. After a click at the other end, a husky woman's voice said Pradeep Magazine, then sports editor of the Indian Express in New Delhi, wanted to talk to me.
Well, that was a welcome surprise. I thought he might want a story about the up-coming series between World Cup champions Australia and chokers South Africa; a three-match event designed to match the teams who tied that famous game at Edgbaston all those months earlier (in a face-off).
Only what emerged from the first few words of our conversation not only tuned my world upside down, but for the next year, my life as well. What Predeep was telling me was just too hard to believe. After all, I had read his book, "Not Quite Cricket" on the match-fixing drama involving Indian players and how bookies influence the game, and for which I had recently done a review for a website and the South African group of newspapers I worked for.
We had met on a steamy Colombo evening, September 1999, at the start of the Aiwa Trophy triangular series involving India, Australia and Sri Lanka, his solid, broad shoulders and silver mop of hair along with twinkling eyes collided with mine as we had a drink after a scrappy media conference at a beach front hotel. We had a discussion with Cammie Smith, the West Indian and match-referee for that series, and the subject centred mainly on Pradeep's book and the snooty reaction of the International Cricket Council at Lord's about match-fixing rumours.
At that stage their argument was there had been no hard evidence and the book was not about uncovering match-fixing at all, which showed they hadn't read it. Or if they had, they didn't want to get their pristine hands soiled. Australian Dave Richards, was ICC CEO and scoffed at such stories. As the ICC president then was Jagmohan Dalmiya, he would let on if there was any skulduggery.
On the Australian front, the Shane Warne and Mark Waugh story had already emerged, and there had long been rumours and strong whispers about former Pakistan captain Salim Malik who had an ingratiating habit when answering questions at media conferences. His whole delivery line came across as a being that of a con artist; a sycophant smile across his rogue-like features. Yet the rumours persisted through the decade.
Suspicions there might be match-fixing bookies on the island for that triangular series, were aroused when taking an air/condition inter-city bus from Colombo to Galle for the opening games of the series. A man at the bus station, wearing what looked to be a silver silk suit when on seeing me and a Sri Lanka colleague, grabbed the handle of his trolley type suitcase and running as fast as his fat legs could carry him, disappeared. Later, Pradeep nudged me and nodded at him and suggested he was one of the infamous 'Mumbai Mafia' of bookies.
All this explained is how it had been going on in your typically sneaky way for years, and ICC officials had been ignoring when initially confronted in the era Sir Clyde Walcott was president.
So, when, on that early South African autumn afternoon sun broke through the scattered cloud, and Pradeep told me why he was calling, his news came as a shock: South Africa's captain Hansie Cronje had been caught on tape indulging in match fixing.
'Nah – it can't be, Pradeep. It's no longer April first,' was my joking response.
'Chesters, friend, believe me. I shall send you the transcripts,' he told me earnestly. 'I would like you to do me a story on South Africa's reaction to the claims. I shall email you the transcripts as we have them.'
'Sure, I'll do that,' I agreed and while waiting for the email to drop, I called Bronwyn Wilkinson, newly into her role as United Cricket Board media liaison officer, who I gather had just been alerted by a news report, first put out by Bloomberg. She was already talking to Ali Bacher, the UCB long-standing managing director about releasing a statement. There were denials all around. Indian police getting their fingers burnt; it's all a pack of lies. Hansie was the shining knight in white armour, hero of the nation and an icon in black townships and suburbs across the country; he worked harder for the image of the game than anyone.
More statements were issued denying it all. No one wanted to believe it. It seemed too fantastic. Cronje was the golden boy, the most popular sportsman in South Africa; even the soccer and rugby heroes were well down the list. Cronje a thief? A match-fixing cheat? You guys had gotta be joking – tell us another . . . blah . . . blah . . . blah.
The gist of the transcripts Pradeep sent suggested how police in New Delhi had taped a conversation which they claimed was between Hansie Cronje and Sanjay Chawla, a man connected with an illegal betting syndicate, who they had been suspected for years, but had no evidence. The two had been discussing a game to be played in Nagpur and which players would be up for taking a bribe: how many runs they might score - they were talking about manipulating the way a game was to be played. It suddenly became about the price of a man's honour.
With three and a half hours difference between India and South Africa, time was an essential factor. Pradeep called twice to see how the story was shaping. He too was shocked. The sports office at the Indian Express for whom I later worked for number of years were all in shock. Most of South Africa was shocked. It was all too surreal.
None of it could be true; too fantastic to be so. As the telephone rang again, by all accounts it was 9 pm IST and NDTV were on line, a phrase of Mark Twain, that weaver of stories about Huckleberry Finn and other wonderful childhood characters, stuck in the mind: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't." Why was that I wondered.
The guy in NDTV politely asked me to go on hold as a recording of two India actors was being played and reading the transcripts, although at the time, and trying to understand what was going on, it sound like the Chawla-Hansie tape. The whole thing was a set up. It wasn't Hansie at all but some Indian. Not having been told it was two actors and a staged conversation, I said then I didn't believe what I had heard was Cronje talking.
I called the Saturday Star and fed them the story of the NDTV tape and how it wasn't Hansie, and did one of my own for the Pretoria News along with an update for Indian Express.
The night editor at the Pretoria News at time was a pompous idiot by the name of Andre Meyerowitz who didn't enjoy that I was feeding other (foreign) news sources, especially those in India, with stories that should be exclusively for the Pretoria News. I told him if he didn't want to use it that was his problem. He was a flunky anyway. We never spoke again from that day. I also later complained to the editor how a man junior to me was acting like some censor, saying that the Cronje story was a dirty pack of cheap lies cobbled together by Indian police.
When later Pradeep alerted me to what I had heard was a tape of two actors for the NDTV listeners, it made me realise how stupid I had been and wrote a story apologising for making such an unmitigated gaffe. But that is how the story was evolving at that stage. It had become a media hyped rollercoaster: events were moving a lot faster in India than South Africa and a clown in Durban, Iqbal Khan, was adding his own thumbsuck versions to the story.
And so, by late that evening, the 'Hansie is Clean' story continued to roll with soothing words from Bacher and the United Cricket Board.
Officially all seemed well until the media conference at Kingsmead, in Durban 48 hours house later, when comments from that conference didn't quite seem right, making me again recall the Mark Twain quote. The mind also went back to events surrounding three ODIs on that India tour.
The first was when Henry Williams was so badly injured, it had been suggested he might miss the last two or three ODI games. Then surprise . . . There he was, unhappily bowling in the next game. What gave it away was how his eyes were wreathed in pain, decidedly out of sorts as he was unable to get his should up as he bowled. It didn't surprise when went off without finishing the over. It didn't seem quite right; why was he playing? There was Herschelle Gibbs and his strange batting tactics, as if he was giving catching practice to Indians. And a third mystery, Cronje bringing himself on to bowl at a time it called for a spinner; again it didn't seem to be the right choice of bowler in such a situation.
His comments too in Durban that night of April 9, didn't quite fit the scenario we had.
Questions were asked and Bacher, Sonn as well as Cronje presented the face of an implacable indignant trio, upset at the sudden sullied image; the only thing missing were Stetsons and smoking six guns as they attempted to shoot down the tough interrogations. Off to the right sat two others also implicated, Gibbs and Nicky Boje, saying nothing.
When listening to Cronje that night there was something that didn't quite seem right. It was how the words used seemed to drool out; in some respects there was a double innuendo in his comments that he had not received money from anyone during the limited overs series in India. They could even check his bank balance. It was a good bluff; plenty of flatulence from such bloated confidence. Talk about egoism; this was a hi-five example of it.
At times it seemed as though he was confessing to having nicked a catch to the wicketkeeper but deciding that with his team in trouble he would not walk unless the umpire was going to signal his dismissal. There was too much to risk. There was at the time an almost patronising grin as he answered questions; the shifty-eyed look remembered before when he answered tricky questions at media conferences when explaining why South Africa had lost. He did not look the questioner in the eye. At times he was almost too self-protective in his answers. Others also noticed this stance.
It gave them impression of: No, of course I have not talked to any members of the side to throw a game. Really guys . . . This is cricket you know. That sort of thing just does not happen.
Then came the key question: Cronje was asked for his reaction to the transcripts. Cronje gave an impervious look at no one in particular. No he had not read them.
Hello. Now this is interesting. How could he rattle off a series of denials if he had not read the transcripts somewhere? What basket of red herrings was he delving into?
"You didn't read them?" was the general puzzled reaction.
"I haven't had the time . . ." He shook his head.
"But they have been in every newspaper in the country - yesterday and today."
Cronje shrugged; the posse of journalists present looked at each other and felt that something was not quite right here. An Australian writer nudged me, whispering how Cronje was displaying certain embarrassment, as if agreeing with the New Deli police charges.
This was followed by another posed query of whether, "They (the bookies) have tried to get at you . . . over the Centurion Test. Perhaps the bookies in India are not too happy with how the result had been achieved? Or even the result itself?"
At this point Bacher and Sonn jumped in to flatly reject the implication; it left some of the media with the impression that the force of the denial suggested such a question was "unpatriotic" when all that was wanted was to get at the truth, not to have this question blocked with fancy official rhetoric and obfuscation and officials scowling angrily with a metaphoric 'How dare you say such things, about, Hansie'.
It was as though, those at the head table of the UCB were pointing fingers at the 'scurrilous actions' of the New Delhi CBI.
Some 48 hours later, it was those at the top table, Bacher, Sonn and other administrators who were looking stupid as the CBI were vindicated by Cronje's admission of guilt. The ICC were no longer scoffing and the sham of fairplay had been exploded. Amid all this, the white knight was shown to be a fake and knocked off his charger.
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