It's not appropriate to be critical of someone who's just passed away. That too, as in Percy Sonn's case, at the rather young age of 57. Even moreso when the man we are talking about played such an important role in bringing South Africa back into international cricket after all those years of ostracism.
But the little I've seen of the man, and the little I have interacted with him, had convinced me that while he was a good-natured man on the whole, he was really a buffoon and not much more. Not incompetent. He was a successful lawyer, I recall reading somewhere. He was a major advocate of equal rights for coloureds and whites in South Africa (maybe a bit too skewed towards the coloureds, leading to many problems with the South African team down the years, which continues to this day). He was a fairly popular man in most cricketing circles. He believed in knocking stuffiness out of boardrooms. A good thing.
Back in Barbados on the 28th of April, he was one of the people who was greeted with loud jeers at the end of the farcical World Cup final
. Quite like at the 2003 final in Johannesburg, where he was shunted forward to shoulder the blame for an equally depressing World Cup (we in India forget how bad it was because we reached the final). So as chief of the Council that had hosted the worst, the most shambolic World Cup (for cricket, kabaddi, anything) ever, Sonn will be remembered as a poor cricket administrator.
But more importantly, the Sonn I remember was the one who appeared on the dais with Malcolm Speed back on the day before the Champions Trophy final (was it the 4th of November last year?) for a press conference in Bombay. It was two days after Speed had been quoted across the world media as having blasted the BCCI for thinking that it rules world cricket by dint of its money power, but having forgotten their basic task of improving the standard of the game in the country.
[As an aside, Speed was totally right; it's just that he said things no one wanted to hear. Especially from a foreigner.]
Sonn walked in to a packed conference hall with a bright smile plastered across his face. We all knew that Speed had been reprimanded and asked to button it up. Sonn came in and announced a couple of rather important things (I forget which), among which was the fact that Ata-ur-Rehman's ban for his role in match-fixing had been overturned and something similar was being planned for Salim Malik. This was the same Sonn making the announcement, who had gone on record saying after the Hansie Cronje issue, that he would make sure Cronje never even plays beach cricket.
I don't remember who it was, but someone did remind Sonn of that famous quote. "I bought that beach," Sonn replied, huge smile still in place. A witty reply, yes. But surely the issue at hand wasn't as frivolous as the answer suggested. This was also pointed out to Sonn, who got into Mode Abusive with the journalist in question.
I remember succeeding in putting Speed in a bit of a bother at some stage as well, to which Sonn turned around to Speed and said, "Mr Speed is going to shut up and not reply to any of these questions." I persisted. To which Sonn declared grandly that Speed was not sitting there to be cross-examined, and that it would make more sense if we "met outside".
No answers were given. Not to a single question. The press release says it all, Sonn announced. I remember an English journalist asking Sonn what the point of the two of them coming to the press conference was all about then. "We know what you look like, Mr Sonn," another journalist suggested; "why are you wasting our time if you don't have anything to say?" "You're free to leave...," Sonn offered.
All along, the humour was in place. All along, that smile was plastered across his face. It pissed me off, as I expect it did to all present in that meeting.
Unfortunately, as I see it, Sonn wasn't really cut out for the top job in world cricket. And I feel he wasn't quite the chief anyway - Speed has been doing that job for a while now. And that's where I think he appeared more incompetent than I am sure he was.
And as I see it, Percy Sonn's legacy could have been a better one, and his epitaph could have read better, had he not chosen to try and head world cricket. He was an achiever before that. Not many people have any bad things to say about him. Most people remember him as a fearless man who never hesitated to speak his mind. Others remember him as a man who got things done. It's the last few months, and everything he did and everything the International Cricket Council did in those few months, that might have spoilt it all for Percy Sonn.