It would be an understatement to say that the sudden demise of former Aussie cricketer Dean Jones on Thursday shocked the followers of the game. Jones was an active presence in the contemporary cricket arena and had come to Mumbai for performing his responsibilities as an analyst and commentator covering the Indian Premier League (IPL). He was only 59 and not known to suffer from any illness or disease. Hence his untimely death, as he was taking rest in his hotel room, was greeted with as much disbelief as sorrow by cricket lovers the world over.
Jones was an integral part of the Australian side under Allan Border and played international cricket from 1984 to 1994. He made his Test debut against the powerful West Indies side at Port of Spain in Trinidad in March, 1984, and equipped himself creditably with a fighting innings of 48. The composure with which he tackled the thunderbolts rained on him by Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Wayne Daniel marked him out as one who had the potential to have a distinguished career at the highest level.
However, his career did not have a smooth take off after that. Indian spectators had their first glimpse of Jones during the World Championship of Cricket held in Australia in March, 1985, when the two sides clashed with each other in the last match of the league stage. He did not score much in this game as Mohinder Amarnath lured him into playing a rash shot and the resultant edge was held by Sadanand Viswanath behind the stumps. He did not figure in the Australia side that played against the touring Indians in the three-Test series and tri-nation championship held in 1985-86.
Jones got his opportunity when Aussies toured India in the autumn of 1986. He walked his way into cricketing history in the first Test of the series played in the sweltering heat of Chennai. Batting first, Australia ran up a total of 574/7 in the first innings, helped mainly by a monumental knock of 210 by Jones. During this innings Jones had to battle the intense heat and humidity which sapped his energies and caused severe dehydration. However, he carried on grimly, despite throwing up occasionally and even passing urine into his pants. At one stage he considered retiring but was dissuaded from doing so by his skipper Border, with who he shared a partnership of 178 runs for the fourth wicket. When he was finally dismissed after spending 8 hours and 22 minutes at the crease, he had to be rushed to the hospital and administered intravenous fluids to tackle the dehydration which had reached dangerous proportions.
This innings by Jones set the tone not just for that series, which Australia managed to emerge undefeated despite being the clear underdogs, but for renaissance of Australian cricket as well. Jones emerged as the fulcrum of the young side that surprised the cricketing world to win the 1987 World Cup. En route to the championship win they defeated India, Pakistan and England, three of the strongest sides in international cricket, thus proving that they had the steel and mettle inside them to be crowned as world champions. Jones was at the centre of action during all the matches, coming at the crucial No. 3 position in the batting order, running like wind between the wickets and demonstrating a new style of attacking fielding that had not been seen before. The brand of positive cricket that Jones came to embody won accolades and admiration from the followers of the game.
After this Jones was a near permanent fixture in the Aussie side till a combination of arrival of younger players and his own inconsistent form with the bat led to he getting dropped from the Test side in 1992. Two years later, when he found that his position in the limited overs’ side also hung in the balance, he chose to quit rather than go through the agony of being kept in the sidelines and trying to force his way back into the playing eleven. His subsequent performances in first-class cricket made it evident that he had a couple of years of top class cricket left in him when he decided to leave the international arena. But then that was Jones, always capable of doing something impulsive, which made him different from the other Aussie cricketers of his generation.
There are two instances of this unconventional behaviour of Jones that come to mind at this moment. The first was at Sydney in 1992, when India were playing Australia in the third Test of the series. Making his mark in this game was a young 18-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, who batted brilliantly to score his first Test hundred in Australia. As the Indian innings closed at 483, with Tendulkar unbeaten on 148, the crowd rose to applaud him. The Aussie players were restrained in their display of appreciation, as Border had made it clear that opponents should be treated as enemies and no signs of weakness or approbation could be shown towards them on the field. But Jones could not restrain himself and he ran all the way down from his position and shook hands with Tendulkar in a public display of admiration.
The second one had more serious consequences for the entire Australian side as Jones ended up annoying Curtly Ambrose, one of the most dreaded fast bowlers in international cricket during that period. During the first final of the tri-sries in 1993, West Indies had set Australia a target of 240. Jones walked in when Australia were 41/1. He straightaway went and told umpire that the white wrist band worn by Ambrose should be removed as it posed a difficulty in picking out the white ball when it was delivered. Umpire had a hard time convincing Ambrose who felt that the demand of Jones was “plain nonsense”. Finally West Indies captain Richie Richardson intervened and coaxed Ambrose to take off the wrist band, by telling him that he should direct his ire at the batsman. Ambrose was so fired up by this piece of gamesmanship on the part of Jones that he ran in harder and upped his speed by 2-3 yards. Aussie wickets fell in a heap as they could not handle the torrid fast bowling of Ambrose, who picked up five wickets to emerge as man of the match. As Jones himself conceded later, making the fast bowler angry was not a very wise thing, which he should have resisted from doing. As he said subsequently in a jocular vein, “I had 11 West Indians and one Australian (non-striker Mark Taylor) on the field sledging me!”
Jones brought the same sense of chutzpah and brio to the commentary box after his retirement. There could be the occasional slip-up as happened when he called Hashim Amla a “terrorist” in 2006. But Jones was man enough to admit his mistake and he apologised to Amla and his father, who accepted it gracefully. He resumed active commentary with his usual gusto after a short break on account of this faux pas. He had a sizeable fan following in India, where he was identified as “Professor Deano", a loveable academic who explained the nuances of the game in simple, easy to understand lingo. He also took up some coaching assignments but met with better success and acceptability as a commentator.
The outpouring of grief that accompanied the news of his sudden untimely departure from the world stand as indication for the regard and affection that the fans of the game had for Jones. As the Amul holding announced, he was the “Professor of batting and Dean of Commentating”. There could not be a bigger tribute from the country where he had maximum number of admirers than these words.
Rest in Peace, Dean Jones!
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)