The game of cricket has undergone a substantive change during the last three decades. Till the 1980s, the focus was almost entirely on the longer duration format of the game, with the one-day edition considered as “pyjama cricket”, played more for entertainment and its crowd-pulling abilities. Though success in Test cricket is still considered the pinnacle of excellence in the game, the other two versions, played over shorter duration have come to occupy a place almost as important as the oldest one. This has brought in changes in batting and bowling, with more runs being scored in a day, bowlers improvising and bringing in new innovations and most of the matches producing results. The quality of bats have also undergone a sea change as can be seen from the ease with which batsmen clear the fence in any game. These developments have brought in a fair share of criticism also as many old-timers feel that the balance between bat and ball has shifted too much in favour of the former, which has taken away some of the erstwhile charm associated with the game and reduced the art of batting to just big hits and slogs.
But there would be near unanimity among all the followers of the game that fielding standards have improved by leaps and bounds during this period. Though fielding was acknowledged as one of the three facets of cricket from the time the game started being played, it had remained as a poor cousin of batting and bowling. Practice sessions used to be devoted almost entirely to batting and bowling, with only a small portion of the time being devoted to fielding. And this also invariably used to be limited to sharpening the skills of taking catches. There was the widespread belief that poor fielders could be hidden on the cricket field and the lapses committed by those who could neither bend nor chase a ball was a small price to pay for their otherwise acknowledged abilities with bat or ball.
It was the advent of limited overs cricket that changed the outlook towards fielding. As the duration of the game was limited to a specific number of overs and the matches produced results, it came to realised that each run saved in a run gained. In a fast paced action packed game, there was hardly any space for hiding anyone and a player who moved slower than the others was considered to be a definite liability. Practice sessions started placing more focus on ground fielding and throw-ins and improved agility became the mantra of all coaches. This, in turn, led to a “revolution” that saw a sudden and substantive improvement in fielding standards world over. Just like every other revolutions in all walks of life, the one in fielding also had a inspirational leader who came to be admired and emulated. And this heroic figure, who ignited the spark of fielding revolution in cricket was Jonathan Neil (Jonty) Rhodes, hailing from Natal in South Africa.
Rhodes caught the attention of the cricketing world during the ICC World Cup 1992 which was held in Australia. This was the first time that World Cup featured players with coloured clothing with matches being played under lights as well. Further, the concept of restrictions on placement of fielders, with inner and outer circles drawn on the field, was also tried out in this edition of the championship. There was plenty of focus on the South Africans as they had just returned to International cricket after a gap of more than two decades. From the beginning of the championship it was evident that they were a top-class side that had the potential to give the other teams a run for their money. Despite the batting and bowling skills of their players being a bit rusty on account of lack of international exposure, they were able to make an impact straightaway on account of the prowess in fielding displayed by them.
Mediapersons who watched the practice sessions of South African side were taken aback to see the importance placed by the team on fielding and physical fitness. It appeared to many of the viewers that that they were witnessing the training programmes of a crack commando unit rather than practice sessions of a cricket team! In this team of outstanding fielders, Rhodes stood out, both for his commitment towards practice as well as for the remarkable speed and commitment displayed by him. There were many occasions when he delayed the departure of team bus from the ground as he wanted to have one more round of catches taken, to sharpen his already formidable skills.
The World Cup matches saw Rhodes patrolling the region around backward point with the grace and swiftness of a panther and attempting a run after playing a ball to his vicinity was near suicidal, as Inzamam-ul-Haq of Pakistan found out to his immense chagrin. In the match between South Africa and Pakistan, Inzamam took off for a single after the ball was deflected off the pads towards gully. Inzamam had taken only couple steps when Imran Khan, at the non-striker's end, firmly sent him back. But Rhodes had, in the meantime sprinted in, swooped down on the ball and dived full length towards the stumps to effect a near impossible “run out” with Inzamam still couple of feet away from the crease! After this, opposing sides developed a healthy respect for him and his diving and sliding stops and acrobatic leaps completely cut off runs in this crucial area in the field. His cheerful demeanour and positive spirit endeared him to the crowds and soon he became an immensely popular cricketer.
Rhodes made his Test debut against India at Durban in 1992 and played 52 matches scoring a total of 2,532 runs with three centuries. He was a doughty batsman, not given to flamboyance or elegance, but did not give his wicket easily and scored useful runs in the middle order. He was more effective in One-Day Internationals, where his quick running between the wickets and tendency to improvise shots yielded better returns. But despite that his overall performance with the bat in international cricket bordered on the “average” and did not evolve to the next high level. He found his place in the playing eleven based on his fielding skills alone and and any contribution with the bat was considered an added bonus!
Like many other South African cricketers, Rhodes was a versatile sportsperson. He was selected for the national hockey side for 1996 Olympics but had to forfeit that opportunity to focus on his commitments to cricket. He was a centre forward in hockey and a goal keeper in soccer, which, in his own words, helped him to develop the speed and skillsets to pounce on the fast moving cricket ball while fielding at backward point.
Rhodes had a fascination for India which he shares with his wife Melanie, a yoga teacher who follows the Vedanta philosophy. This prompted the couple to name their first born daughter India, something that no other sportsperson, within or outside the country has ever done. The crowds in India adored him and showered their love and affection on him without restraint. Rhodes was part of the Indian Premier League (IPL) bandwagon and was the fielding coach of Kings XI Punjab in the ongoing edition. Rhodes announced in September that he would be taking up the assignment of being the national cricket coach of Sweden after conclusion of IPL 2020.
There had been cricketers who were selected to their national sides based on their fielding prowess before Rhodes. Eknath Solkar of India was one such player who was selected for his exemplary catching skills close to the bat, which lent an extra edge to Indian spin bowlers. In the past, cricket fans had seen superb fielders in the deep who kept the spectators in thrall by the anticipation, agility and athleticism they used to display. But there has not yet been another player who caught the eye of the entire cricketing world in the way Rhodes did through his spectacular fielding. Though the increase in number of limited overs matches and the advent of live telecast of all international games played a role in helping to spread his popularity, there is no denying the fact that Rhodes was a legend in his own right. Such was his fame that, at the peak of his prowess, all sides playing cricket, from the club to first-class levels, invariably made it a practice to nickname their best fielder as Jonty!
Here is wishing Rhodes good luck and success as he proceeds to Sweden to don a new hat.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)