Friday, November 25, 2005

Hello and all

This appeared in the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai. It's written by Haroun Kamal, a combination of two characters. Actually three, because they're me. It's a preview for the upcoming match in Mumbai.

Letting go

Haroun Kamal

We were young then and so we never saw it coming. All we knew was that South Africa were the team to beat in one-dayers because they played the game in a supreme style called ‘total cricket’. It was so clinical and so very effective, no one, even experts at home, knew what to do. Maybe individual brilliance, maybe bad umpiring, maybe others would catch up. But they were such a long way ahead. They had an effective captain – a popular born-again Christian, no less – their fielding was exemplary, and the bowling was in tip-top condition. When they played India, everyone prayed a little harder.

In two years, from 1995 to 96, South Africa met India in seven matches before the Titan Cup final at Wankhede Stadium. If we restricted them to 223, they kept us to 209. If they batted first, India’s chase was futile. No use. Forget about it. Even Tendulkar played the game at the pace they set. Then, on one particularly sweaty November evening, we beat them in a match that counted. It was the final of the Titan Cup. Tickets were sold out, there was the usual murmur over the seats allocated to clubs, India had just scraped past Australia to qualify, the Man was in form and, amid all this, something told us yet again that it was India’s day. So squeezed together tightly on sagging wood benches, we watched as the afternoon began with Sanjay Manjrekar scratching about in his last game, a little while later it was all Tendulkar, and then Anil Kumble ran away with the stumps at night. Wankhede exploded in a burst of giddy cheer, and for a few days the mood was distinctly post-coital.

Then we won a rollicking Test series, and ended the 59-day tour by winning the hastily-constructed Mohinder Amarnath benefit match – an official one-dayer – at the Wankhede. The last game was an excess; the visitors were disillusioned and pined for home, and Cronje vented his anger on a local official. That, nine years ago, was the last time the two met in a one-dayer at Wankhede. That last game, part of neither a series nor of significance, was forgotten for four years until it returned to memory with such force, that it is unlikely to be taken for granted.

In 2000, South Africa were back, and better prepared. India, distracted by captaincy problems, were soundly beaten at home for the first time in thirteen years. A week after the victory, Cronje spoke to a man named Sanjeev Chawla. The Delhi crime branch tapped phone lines and overheard as promises of runs and wickets and low scores and cash were exchanged. We now know matches were altered. We know Cronje accepted money. We realise many people were involved. Match-fixing is not accepted, but the idea that it exists, is. The cynic within acknowledges that it is always likely. That is what the revelations of that year did. They woke up those who didn’t know better.

When Cronje finally confessed, specific matches were mentioned. The benefit match in Bombay came under the scanner. Before the game, Cronje had made his team an offer. Gary Kirsten, a senior member of the side, described the moment in his book. “’We have been offered a lot of money to throw a game,’ he said. I swear you could have heard a pin drop at that moment. Nobody moved a muscle. In retrospect I think I had gone into instant shock. I listened but it was out of respect for the captain and a strange fascination with what he was saying rather than any intention to carry out instructions. I knew within a few seconds I could not be involved ... but I listened… He mentioned a couple of times it would be worth 60 or 70 thousand rand each.”

Cronje was sacked, barred from the game and cast out publicly. Shaun Pollock, who became vice captain after Kirsten stepped down from the post in 1998 without explanation, became captain. When Cronje died, Pollock dedicated a victory to his predecessor. The next captain was the 22-year old Graeme Smith, who was less involved. “I never met Hansie Cronje. I never played with him or against him. He was a good leader but in the end he tarnished the game.” Step by step, captain by captain, South African cricket was detaching itself from the effect Cronje had, and ensuring that a new leader emerged from his huge shadow.

Five years is a long time. Since then India have caught up with South African methods, especially in matters of training. Since then one coach has come and gone, and the next has already made his mark. Since then people gained interest in the game, lost it, and recently regained it. There is a new captain who bats like a dream. His counterpart, Graeme Smith leads a team that has had some success. The focus is likely to be on cricket, but perhaps that is unlikely as well, because a couple of weeks is also a long time and anything could happen. Television rights, board elections, backroom politics. All this we can deal with. But it is the silent thing, the unspoken issue, that we will try to forget when South Africa arrive without Herschelle Gibbs and Nicky Boje, who investigators would like to question for what happened back then. And because of this absence, while both teams look ahead, the past clings on, unwilling to let go.

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