Jonty Rhodes revolutionised fielding in the 1990s © Getty Images
Jonty Rhodes revolutionised fielding in the 1990s © Getty Images

Jonty Rhodes, the man who had revolutionised fielding in the 1990s, was born July 27, 1969. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who had defined cricket the way few have.

World Cup 1992. Inzamam-ul-Haq had pushed a ball towards backward point, and the single was turned down. Jonty Rhodes picked the ball up and, instead of throwing the ball at the stumps, sprinted towards them — seemingly accelerating with every millisecond. By the time he crashed into the stumps with the ball in his hands, Inzamam’s jog has brought him nowhere close to the crease. In his own words, “There was a 50% chance that I’d hit the stumps if I threw, and a 100% chance of hitting the stumps with ball in hand. The fastest way I could cover the last metre and a half was head-first. It was just the right thing to do at the time.”

Cricket was never the same again.

How does one define Jonathan Neil Rhodes? One can go with the clichéd, “Is he a bird? Is he a plane? Is he Superman?,” but that will only define his unreal abilities on the field. What it will not showcase is the way he had revolutionised world cricket in the 1990s. That one run out had changed the perspective of the world of cricket towards fielding — the most underrated of the three dimensions of cricket.

Rhodes was the first fielding superstar of world cricket. Old-timers will mention Colin Bland, but contemporaries and youngsters have seldom taken to Bland as their idol; Bland did not create fielding coaches across the world; Bland did not revolutionise fielding. Rhodes (who had, in fact, idolised Bland, along with Kevin Keegan and Pele) did all that, and more.

Most importantly, Rhodes made fielding fashionable. Remember those days when the bullies always had authority over the bat, and the aggressive and the wily took to bowling — leaving the rest, the underrated, the “lesser” boys to retrieve balls? Rhodes changed all that. Children wanted to become champion fielders after they saw Rhodes. Almost all posters and magazine covers and newspaper front pages carried that picture of an airborne Rhodes that has attained iconic status today.

Remember that Robert Croft catch from the 1999 World Cup? Croft had done nothing wrong — in fact, it was quite a good stroke. But the devil in green suddenly leapt in the air and, realising that he wouldn’t be able to catch it, slapped it vertically in the air; the ball looped behind him, and Rhodes, still in mid-air, turned a hundred and eighty degrees to complete the catch. Let alone a gymnast, a Marvel Comics superhero would have been jealous.

The other aspect of Rhodes was the fact that he had terrorised batsmen when at his prime. They would play a ball to point or backward point and would hesitate to leave the crease. If the ball was pitched short, they would hesitate to play a cut — what if the human aircraft plucked it mid-air?

Sourav Ganguly had found it out the hard way…

… as had Sachin Tendulkar.

In short, he redefined fielding. Before the arrival of Rhodes cricket remained merely a sport of skills (not that it was a bad thing). Bowlers were supposed to cool their heels at fine-leg and third-man; and the slowest of runners could be hidden at mid-off. Not anymore: everyone, everyone was supposed to excel on the field in the post-Rhodes era.

What made Rhodes exceptional? Cricketers from nations excelling in rugby are usually fitter than the others, and Rhodes has not been an exception. His hockey background (he was selected as a centre-forward for Barcelona Olympics, 1992. Alas, South Africa could not qualify for the main stage. Rhodes was also shortlisted for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but had to pull out due to a hamstring injury).

There have been several cricketers with a similar background. What then marks out Rhodes as different from others?

Rhodes covered ground  faster than most men; he watched the batsman intently and predicted the direction of the stroke, and almost invariably he got it correct; his reflexes were extraordinary, he was nimble on his feet, he could change directions (even mid-air: poor Croft); he was never afraid to commit himself to risky dives. In his own words, “if you didn’t come off with grass stains on your flannels, you hadn’t done your job.”

Rhodes was the first fielding superstar of world cricket. Old-timers will mention Colin Bland, but contemporaries and youngsters have seldom taken to Bland as their idol; Bland did not create fielding coaches across the world; Bland did not revolutionise fielding. Rhodes (who had, in fact, idolised Bland, along with Kevin Keegan and Pele) did all that, and more

He also worked really hard — so hard that the South African team bus often got late because of his fielding sessions. People questioning him about the near-impossible catches have often been surprised to learn that he caught plenty of “those” during the practice sessions.

But above all, he loved cricket, and loved his fielding; that, according to him, was the key factor that kept him going on for 90 overs, day in and day out, match after match, for years. He looked at flinging himself on the ground as fun. How do you account for these catches otherwise?

Off the field, Rhodes is religious to the core, leading the South African team in masses. On it he was a leader as well, especially when his side was fielding. He cheered and applauded the teammates in a way very similar to what wicketkeepers do. Wisden called him “South Africa’s effervescent talisman”.

Humble to the core, Rhodes defined himself as a fielder cut out for a specific role: “There are so many different aspects of fielding. I don’t believe you can say any one person is the best. I like to think I am one of the best stoppers. My strengths are stopping runs, holding catches and putting pressure on opponents.”

Let us not forget the fact that Rhodes was a more than handy batsman as well. His career tally read 2,532 runs at 36.56 with 3 hundreds in Tests and 5,935 at 35.11 at a strike rate of 80.9 with 2 hundreds in ODIs. These are not exceptional numbers, but it was the manner in which Rhodes scored the runs that made him exceptional.

He himself admitted that he did not have a great technique, but after Natal coach Graham Ford adjusted his grip and Bob Woolmer asked him to “focus on the ball”, Rhodes’ approach to batting became fine-tuned, and runs kept coming. “My cover drive was beyond help, but Bob (Woolmer) adjusted it,” Rhodes admitted later.

If there is one word to define Rhodes’ batting (as with his fielding), it has to be “busy”. Seldom did he remain still at his crease: he moved forward and back, to his left and right, made a mockery of conventional footwork and technique, and managed to take the bowling apart with his unconventional strokeplay. From slog-sweeps off fast bowlers to the boldest of reverse-sweeps, Rhodes possessed the entire repertoire.

He also thrived under pressure; the finest of his innings had mostly come when the match situation was tilted against the Proteas. Rhodes’ finest performances with the bat often turned out to be a 40 or a 50 that altered the course of a Test. He was among the swiftest runners between the wickets, taking on the fastest of fielders with confidence.

Early days

Born in Pietermaritzburg, Rhodes grew up with his brother Clinton (who played for Natal). His father, a headmaster in a school, was a strict person who disapproved of Rhodes wearing shades on the field — more so if he dropped a catch with the shades on.

Jonty played for South African Schools (as vice-captain to Hansie Cronje), went to the Maritzburg College and University of Natal, and soon made his First-Class debut for Natal. In 1988 (during South Africa’s ban) he scored 108 against Western Province at Kingsmead as a rampant Garth le Roux ran through Natal.

With Peter Kirsten past his prime, Rhodes established himself as the best South African fielder of the era (which was saying something). He played for South African Universities as well, and had, unknown to the world, been taking fielding to altitudes hitherto unknown. He was unleashed in the 1992 World Cup.

On his debut Test at Kingsmead, Rhodes became a part of history when he ran out Tendulkar; Cyril Mitchley drew a rectangle in the air, and Karl Liebenberg, after some deliberation, lit the bulb. Rhodes thus effected the first international wicket to be decided by a third umpire.

South Africa were reduced to 26 for 4 in the next Test at New Wanderers; with the score on 61 for 4 Rhodes attempted a run, but was clearly short of the crease; the fielders appealed vehemently, but Steve Bucknor did not refer it to the third umpire. Rhodes survived, scored 91 (till then his highest international score), South Africa reached 292, and the Test was saved.

With the series in the kitty, Rhodes top-scored in the first innings of the fourth Test at Newlands; and the series was subsequently won. The greatest fielder in the world had established himself as a batsman. He was an obvious candidate for the South African Cricket Annual Cricketer of the Year that season.

Jonty Rhodes was known for his athletic brilliance in the field © Getty Images
Jonty Rhodes was known for his athletic brilliance in the field © Getty Images

The Colossus that was Rhodes

The next season saw Rhodes score his maiden Test hundred, that too under difficult circumstances. Arjuna Ranatunga had set South Africans a stiff 365 from 115 overs, but they lost their way, first at 47 for 3, and then at 126 for 6. Rhodes, refusing to be dominated by Muttiah Muralitharan and Piyal Wijetunge, smashed his way to a 107-ball 101 not out; South Africa finished with 251 for 7.

Soon after the innings the South Africans reached India for the Hero Cup, and it was in the fourth match of the tournament that Rhodes pulled off a stunning feat. He scored a 42-ball 40 to take his team to 180 for four in 40 overs, but that was not the reason for him to be awarded the Man of the Match.

Rhodes took five catches  in the match. It still remains a world record for any non-wicket-keeper in an ODI. Rhodes literally swam along the ground after he completed the catch of Brian Lara; he flew at short mid-wicket to his left to catch Phil Simmons with his left hand; and Anderson Cummins was another victim of an airborne Rhodes, only at backward point. The other two catches — those of Jimmy Adams and Desmond Haynes — were simple in comparison.

Runs and ruins

With age came maturity, and with maturity came runs. The match-winning 76-ball 83 against Jason Gillespie, Paul Reiffel, and Shane Warne on a fast Newlands pitch in 1997 definitely deserves a mention, as does the 39-ball unbeaten 53 against Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, and Mervyn Dillon at Gaddafi later that year. The unbeaten 95 off 94 balls against Pakistan at Gaddafi next year helped clinch another ODI.

The 117 in the Lord’s Test of 1998 (he was named Man of the Match) was instrumental in a 10-wicket victory. South Africa were set a target of 219 at Headingley, but were reduced to 27 for 5 by Angus Fraser and Darren Gough. Rhodes probably played the innings of his career, blunting the fast bowlers (Dominic Cork and Andrew Flintoff formed the support cast), but could not prevent a 23-run defeat.

His tour averages read 633 runs at 42.20 in First-Class matches and 330 at 47.14 in the shorter version. That, combined with his superlative performances on the field, combined to make him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. He was also named (for the second time) a South African Cricket Annual Cricketer of the Year for his domestic performances.

His 92-ball 98 at Kingsmead sealed another victory over Pakistan; and days before his retirement, he pulled off a match-winning 95-ball 81 against Pakistan at Newlands, winning the Man of the Match award yet again.

As time passed, age seemed to catch up with him. “I enjoy diving, but when I use both hands I land on my chest and it causes whiplash to my neck. I visit a chiropractor once a month. There will come a time when the body says ‘no more’,” he told Wisden.

The end came suddenly. Rhodes had announced his retirement after World Cup 2003; he scored two against West Indies at Newlands, but suffered a major blow against Kenya at Potchefstroom: he dropped a catch of Maurice Odumbe and broke his hand in the process. He was ruled out for the rest of the World Cup, and always one to adhere to his word, he quit from international cricket with immediate effect. He was replaced by Graeme Smith, which marked the beginning of another era.

The tournament marked the end of the ODI careers of Rhodes and Shane Warne. One had a jersey with yellow on green; the other, green on yellow; between them they had defined the 1990s the way no one had. It was only befitting that they would bow out together.

The South African Government later issued a stamp and a coin as a tribute to Rhodes.

Stamp issued by South African government as a tribute to Jonty Rhodes. Photo Courtesy: Nazim Cricket
Stamp issued by South African government as a tribute to Jonty Rhodes. Photo Courtesy: Nazim Cricket

Free from international duty, Rhodes went on to play for Gloucestershire in the summer of 2003. He finished on a high, with 1,293 runs at 58.77 with 5 hundreds and 7 fifties. He was the only Gloucestershire batsman to go past the 1,000-mark that season.

Coin issued by South African government as a tribute to Jonty Rhodes. Photo Courtesy: Bid or Buy
Coin issued by South African government as a tribute to Jonty Rhodes. Photo Courtesy: Bid or Buy

Post-retirement

After his retirement Rhodes initially worked as an Account Executive for Standard Bank. He played a significant role in the promotion of the bank as the sponsor of cricket in South Africa. Rhodes went on to become the fielding coach of Pakistan and South Africa; he helped Kenya with their preparations ahead of World Cup 2011; and currently coaches the Namibia Twenty20 side.

During IPL seasons, he works as a fielding coach for Mumbai Indians, for whom his animated reactions at the dugout make him seem fitter than some of the players.

Rhodes married twice, to Kate McCarthy (niece of Test cricketer Cuan McCarthy) and Melanie Wolf. He is the father of three children, Daniella, Rose, and India. Future generations will also remember him as the father of modern-day fielding.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He can be followed @ovshake42)