December 5, 2006 3:38:37 am
“Are you from India? Come to watch the cricket?” Not very tall, his shaven head shining under the bright lights of the Sandon City mall barely two minutes away from the hotel where the Indian team is, the “fan” reaches out for a quick handshake.
It’s Sunday night, a bit after 10.30 pm, India have lost the one-day series 0-4, and out come the words, with a naughty smile, that shakes the heart. “Hi, I am Banjo, the man K K Paul is looking for.”
Meet Hamid ‘Banjo’ Cassim, the ‘Biltong man’, a key figure in the match-fixing scandal of 2000, the sweetshop owner of Johannesburg who first introduced former South African captain Hansie Cronje to London-based bookie Sanjeev Chawla.
“No, no, no, you can’t take my picture, you will put in the newspapers tomorrow,” says Cassim, in his early 50s, a bit rattled after a business card is handed over.
But he doesn’t turn away, he stays, and talks, pausing only to suppress a few nervous laughs. “Yes, I introduced Hansie to (Sanjeev) Chawla. But that was all. I never knew Chawla before, I just helped him meet Hansie. I was never involved in anything that happened after,” he says, adding that he is now in the “cellphone business”.
So will he come to India to answer questions from the Delhi Police team, headed by Commissioner Paul, which tapped phone conversations between Hansie and Chawla during South Africa’s India tour six years ago to expose the scandal? “No, I will never come to India. Why should I? I have not got any papers from them. But even if I did, I will never come there, I have done no wrong,” says Cassim.
(On October 12 this year, South African player Herschelle Gibbs told Delhi police that he knew “Banjo” Cassim and had met him during a series in Sharjah, chief investigator for the match-fixing scandal, Ranjit Narayan, told The Indian Express in New Delhi today. But he does not recall if the police have done anything to get to Cassim since 2000, he said.)
Cassim quickly steers the subject to his “friends” in Indian cricket. “I have great respect for Kapil Dev. Paaji is my hero. How is Ajay Jadeja? He was a good friend. And Mohammed Azharuddin? He is a great guy, it’s unfortunate that everybody turned on him. I knew Ali Irani (former physio) very well too, I hope he is fine,” says Cassim.
But it is when he talks about Hansie that Banjo’s voice starts to falter. “He was a good man, but they made him the scapegoat. The man behind his downfall was Ali Bacher (former head of the South African cricket board). In fact, Hansie’s family invited me for his funeral,” says Cassim, father of three.
Hansie, who was handed a life-ban — like Azharuddin — for his alleged involvement in the match-fixing saga, was killed in an aircrash two years ago after the Kings Commission had wound up its hearings on the case. Cassim had told the Commission that he had been shocked to see Cronje accept an envelope containing money from a bookmaker in a Durban hotel room in January, 2000.
Cassim claims he hasn’t watched the current one-day series between India and South Africa, but adds that he was at the Wanderers for the Twenty20 match on Friday. It’s a claim that’s turned on its head later by Indian team sources who say Cassim was “rebuffed strongly” twice after he tried to offer “any help” especially in providing Indian food, during the first tour game in Benoni and at Sunday’s game in Centurion.
But by now, Cassim’s friends join in, and he is eager to go. He refuses another request for a photograph, he won’t give his mobile number. But he says, pointing to a restaurant outside, at the Nelson Mandela Square, “If you want to see me, come to the Butcher’s Grill (The Butcher Shop & Grill). I am there every Sunday.”
As Banjo walks away, it’s time to reach for the laptop, do a quick google image search. Was that a prank? Minutes later, the face leaps at you from the screen. Yes, that was Banjo.
“It’s unbelievable, meeting him here, like this,” says Johann de Jager, senior cricket correspondent for Afrikaans daily Volksblad, who was with this reporter when Cassim spoke outside Baglios Gelataria, an ice-cream outlet. “How did he know we were involved with cricket? We weren’t talking about the game, were we? I find that strange,” adds de Jager.
Do you know he figures in a book on the scandal, asks de Jager. What is it called? “The Banjo Players.”
What he knew, and what he did
• Cassim, a Johannesburg sweetshop owner, became known as the man who facilitated the meeting between Hansie Cronje and Sanjeev Chawla in 2000.
• Allegedly introduced to Indian team by Ali Irani, the physio, in the 1992 series in South Africa.
• Has admitted he was friends with Cronje since 1993 and met Chawla in Johannesburg in early 2000.
• Chawla is then said to have asked Cassim to get Cronje to meet him and the three did meet in Durban.
• Nearly a month later, Chawla called up Cassim from Kochi and then asked him to help get in touch with Cronje again on the latter’s cellphone. The Cronje-Chawla conversation was tapped by the Delhi Police, which led to Cronje’s fall.
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