Ewie Cronje and the match that crumpled SA elite

Ewie Cronje (Gallo Images)
Ewie Cronje (Gallo Images)

The symbolism of the occasion should never be underestimated ... and hopefully somewhere, in a better place, the just-deceased godfather of Free State cricket Ewie Cronje can dream pleasant thoughts about it from time to time.

On 22 March 1989, Free State didn’t just upset established domestic powerhouse Western Province to win the then wildly popular Benson & Hedges night series final before a late-summer full house at hallowed Newlands.

They became architects of a long-time cultural barrier being ripped down, as a side dominated by Afrikaans players (don’t be deceived by the very-soon-to-be-illustrious “Allan Anthony Donald” or “Louis Wilkinson” names among them) and from the central “platteland” of South Africa created statistical history.

Against the backdrop of a game on our shores marked for roughly a century at that point by the clear-cut, English-dominated leanings and characteristics to the establishment, those orange-clad competitors - with Cronje’s emerging son Hansie significantly to the fore in performance terms - were ceiling-busters.

They rocked the status quo, and in some respects might be said to have acted as subconscious pathfinders for an even more welcome, more tangible sense of cricketing inclusiveness when unity was achieved less than two years later between the then overwhelmingly-white South African Cricket Union (SACU) and the non-racial South African Cricket Board (SACB), while apartheid was gradually dismantled.   

But for many decades, black players - on callous statutory grounds - and Afrikaners, the latter victims more of a “cultural” bias against them and the misguided perception that rugby was their greater preserve, were overwhelmingly shut out of the cricket elite in the country.

Keep in mind, too, that a season after that humbling in the B&H showpiece, the WPCU was due to celebrate its centenary, having been founded on 5 September 1890 in the Thatched Tavern on Greenmarket Square in the centre of Cape Town, with WH Milton (he had played rugby fullback for England) as first president and four clubs represented: WPCC, Cape Town, Claremont and Sea Point.

Common denominator? All white, all very English ... something that would take a near-eternity to alter.

A Capetonian newspaper cricket writer of the late 1980s and early '90s, I can state without any reservation that, even as largely Afrikaans clubs like Bellville, Northerns-Goodwood and Paarl sprang up or came to gradual prominence in the WP fold at that time, their members and players often felt aggrieved that the Newlands bosses and provincial selectors tended to stick to “what and who they knew” from more established outfits in the oak- and plane-lined southern suburbs ... something that stretched to monitoring of and regard for schools’ teams as well.

There was a parallel feeling more nationwide, even as the attraction of young Afrikaners to the summer pursuit so clearly mushroomed, that recognition might involve a special degree of “uphill”.

So that was the prevailing climate, really, when that Free State team took up the challenge as underdogs - admittedly not too markedly so, as they had already ruffled plenty of big-team feathers that season - in the Newlands floodlit showpiece.

From as distant as the 1892-90 season, no team other than Transvaal, Natal, Western Province, Eastern Province or Rhodesia - the traditional, long-time Currie Cup teams - had won any of the major domestic competitions, so history certainly beckoned seductively to the side led by Joubert Strydom.

Yet it was still going to be a tall order to topple a WP team who, despite so often falling prey (like others) to the revered Transvaal “Mean Machine” at first-class level, had developed a healthy knack of winning the revolutionary, 45-over competition: they were bidding for a record fourth consecutive trophy success in it when Free State came to town.

The visitors’ hopes of prevailing received an immediate boost when Strydom won the toss ... always considered a key development, as “bat first” was overwhelmingly the wise option before the coastal pitch juiced up at dusk and under fullest effect of the lights to aid movement off the seam.

Local folklore had it, and not without reason, that if you posted anything northward of 190 during daylight at the ground, you were 90 percent likely to win a few hours later.

Cronje jnr was then a callow, but already highly-touted 19-year-old opening batsman, and his second-wicket partnership of 115 with Free State’s Yorkshire import Ashley Metcalfe rocked WP back on their heels: the tall right-hander top-scored with 73 and Metcalfe was not far behind with 71 as Free State got to a buxom (certainly at the time) 213 for eight despite the best efforts of crowd-favourite all-rounder and home captain Adrian Kuiper (3/41).

Suitably emboldened, it seemed a perfect platform for the visitors to unleash Donald - “White Lightning” then a stringy, already auspiciously hostile 22 - on the WP top order.

Soon set to wow the Warwickshire public in England with a seminal 1989 county campaign for the Bears, Donald was aided by the more experienced but also slippery Corrie van Zyl in swiftly shattering Province dreams: the former dismissed Jon Hardy (1) and Daryll Cullinan (0) while the latter ripped out Lawrence Seeff (1) as the scoreboard read a dramatic four for three.

It required all the skill and gnarly resolve of veteran Peter Kirsten (72) to at least partially stabilise the listing WP ship, but their 152 all out in fewer than 40 overs not only ensured Free State’s nirvana but an unexpectedly one-sided showpiece, into the bargain.

Donald would earn the man-of-the-match mantle for his explosive analysis of 7-3-18-4 in a match marked by the presence of no few than three, later to be frontline-power national coaches: Van Zyl and Eric Simons (both South Africa) and Peter Moores (England).

The full Free State side for the province’s finest cricket achievement at the time was: Strydom (capt), Cronje, Gavin Victor, Metcalfe, Moores, Wilkinson, Brad Player, Johan van Heerden, Van Zyl, Gordon Parsons and Donald.

Their success was a trigger not only for some of their own, Afrikaans-background players like Cronje, Van Zyl and Donald to go on to play post-isolation cricket for their country, but arguably a catalyst for later prominent international stars like AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Boeta Dippenaar and many others.

As Cricket South Africa noted in their own, appropriate tribute earlier this week to Cronje, who had died aged 80, he had been one of the “great characters and driving forces of Free State cricket”.

Born in Bethulie, some 180km from Bloemfontein, he was a player for the then-minnow, second-tier union for around a dozen years to 1972, and later all of selection chief, groundsman and president as he patiently drove their bid to burst into a stronger spotlight.

Yes, that would have been some night at Newlands on the satisfaction scale, all right, for Nicolaas Everhardus “Oom Ewie” Cronje ...

Free State

Free State celebrate winning the Benson & Hedges series... (Photo: Frans Cronje - Facebook)

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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