Still jaunty at 50: Jonty Rhodes on why he loves India, his favourite fielders and more

From running batsmen out with darts-like throws to diving full-stretched and holding on to unbelievable catches, Jonty Rhodes is widely regarded as the greatest fielder of all time.

Published: 08th October 2019 02:59 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th October 2019 04:26 PM   |  A+A-

Jonty Rhodes during the Covelong surfing festival. (Photo | AFP)

Online Desk

'Full-blooded cut shot... Jonty Rhodes, diving to his right... one-handed... spectacular'.

The word 'spectacular' sums up South African legend Jonty Rhodes' work on the field. Like in this case when he dismissed Aussie opener Matthew Hayden off the bowling of Jacques Kallis. 

A middle-order batsman, Rhodes revolutionised the third element of cricket -- fielding. Having played 52 Tests and 245 ODIs for the Proteas between 1992 and 2003, Rhodes scored nearly 8500 international runs at an average of just over 35 in both the formats. 

Interestingly, his fielding caught the admiration of the cricket world more than his batting exploits. From running batsmen out with darts-like throws to diving full-stretched and holding on to unbelievable catches, he is widely regarded as the greatest fielder of all time.

Talking to TNIE, he shares his experience of living in India, his view on the changes brought about in cricket and much more...

How is the experience of being in India different from that in South Africa?

I spend almost four months of the year in India. So it is my second home but without having a home. I'm generally in a hotel somewhere. I am very comfortable here. I started coaching the Mumbai Indians in 2009 and a great deal of my time is spent here. From the food to the travelling, I feel very much at home.

What's the best part of living in India?

The best part about living here, for me, as an outsider is the case of real diversity. Whichever state that I go to, regions within the same state have very different dialects, food culture and delicacies. I think from that perspective, the diversity really appeals to me. Growing up in an apartheid-era South Africa, there was no diversity allowed. It was a white-only government and not inclusive at all. One thing I have realised is that the more you learn about other people, the more you learn about yourself. India is a great place to come with that diversity.

Talking about cricket, whenever we hear about Jonty Rhodes, we say he's the best fielder of all time but your batting record is decent as well. Do you think you didn't get enough recognition as a batsman?

It was interesting because people keep asking me are you not upset that they are not talking about your batting. I say, at least they are talking about something.

Fielding was not an element of the game that was even spoken about when I first started playing. The fact that I made an impact makes me happy. I was conscious of the fact that I was saving 15 or 20 runs on the field and people felt that it balanced out my lower average. But as a batsman, my first job was to score runs and I didn't do enough of that.

How has the fielding changed from your playing days to what it is now?

Well, in a massive way and not just in the sub-continent. I think because of T20 cricket and the IPL, not just my inputs, people have appreciated how important the role of the fielder is in being able to turn the game. I think in T20, one over can change a game totally.

It's the same thing with Test cricket because if you give someone like a Virat Kohli a second chance he will probably go on to hit a double hundred, so you don't want to drop him. Also, people don't really coach throwing because catching and stopping the ball is what fielding is seen as. But in T20 cricket, throwing is so important.

Guys like Pollard who come here for the IPL catch the ball and bring it back in from over the boundary ropes. Now you see that happening all over the world. Fielding skills have changed like fast bowling. They have to come up with slower ball bouncers, out of the back slower balls, straight yorkers, wide yorkers because the batsmen are doing all sorts of crazy stuff. So through T20, all elements of the game have changed.

Tell us about your famous run-out of Inzamam-ul-Haq during the 1992 World Cup

We didn't have any fielding coaches back then. My fielding was a combination of hockey that I was playing, tennis and football. It kind of made me a decent fielder. One area that I was not comfortable enough was my throwing accuracy.

So, at that stage, we needed a breakthrough. Pakistan were batting well. There had been a rain break. It was in Brisbane, so the outfield was very wet and the bowlers were really struggling to grip the ball properly. They were smacking us everywhere and we needed a wicket badly. Inzamam was only 19 and it was the first game I played against him.

But he really looked like a lumbering fellow even as a 19-year-old, so I backed my speed against him. I realised that as soon as it hit him on the pads, he set off. The Prime Minister (Imran Khan) who was batting on the other side said 'no'. So I knew that Inzy would have to come back, but he was quicker than I had anticipated. So, I just felt the fastest way for me to travel the last two metres was to dive forward.

Inzamam was just short of his crease and umpire Steve Bucknor was well within his rights to give him not out as the benefit of the doubt was usually given to the batsmen.

We all know of the 2015 World Cup South African heartbreak. How were the emotions during the 1999 World Cup semi-final which you were a part of?

We really haven't had great performances at the World Cup. And in 1999, Lance Klusener almost single-handedly took us to the semifinals. He was winning game after game for us. And the crazy thing is in that semifinal against Australia, we didn't lose the match. We tied the game. So that's the importance of one run. It's not always about the boundaries and the sixes. Every run is vital. So as a team we were very disappointed.

I think we were the number one ranked side in the world which doesn't guarantee you a win at the World Cup, we know that. But we had pretty much everything okay in that game. Donald and Klusener shouldn't have been batting as the set batsmen should have got us home. I scored 40-odd runs, Kallis got 50-odd runs.

But Shane Warne was devastating on the day as we were going well at 50/0. Then Warne came out and picked up three or four straightaway. So, it was a game that went up and down. It was a great semi-final.

And it was before the Super Overs. Though we tied the game, Australia went through with a superior net run-rate. So we were down but the difficult part is two weeks later we were playing again. You don't get four years to think about it.

Obviously it was a very disappointed dressing room but that's the way it goes in the knock-out games of the World Cup.

Any changes you would like to see in the ICC tie-breaker rules after the recent World Cup finals?

No, the rules are constantly changing and evolving in the context of the way the game is changing. Everyone knows what the rules are, you kind of play within them. And if it happens, it happens. Someone is going to be unhappy and someone is going to be happy.

Your thoughts on the current South African side especially after the retirement of Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla. Where is it heading?

Recently, I got a lot of flak in South Africa after I spoke about the lack of unity in the South African team. What I meant was that apart from the senior players that you have spoken about, we don't have a coaching staff. It's an interim coaching staff.

If you come to India, it's not just the players that need to perform. There has to be a strong back-up system because it is a long hard tour.

As a South African player, it is pretty demanding. I think we have only won the Test series once with Hansie Cronje in 1999 when Mark Boucher played really well. So you need those sort of fighters in the side and now the South African team has had a lot of changes.

ALSO READ | Will be a hard tour for South Africa without big guns, warns Proteas great Jonty Rhodes

It's hard to replace Steyn, Amla or De Villiers. We have great fast bowlers in the side. We have guys who have got the skills, but have they done it before? No!

The experience is what South Africa is going to miss and they have got a brand new management team.

So I don't see a lot of positives from the South African point of view. It's always tough here but it's going to be a hard tour.

Your thoughts on the Indian cricket team

The Indian set-up is really well established, top of the log. They are performing well on the field but if you look at their management structure, they have retained most of them again. They have very strong backroom staff and that allows the team to play to the best of their abilities.

What changes would you bring if you were made the fielding coach of the Indian cricket team?

The interesting thing is that there was an indication from the media that if Ravi Shastri is retained then the bulk of his management staff would probably stay the same.

If I were to look from the outside, then the fielding has improved tremendously under the current coach. A lot of it is due to fitness. Guys like Ambati Rayudu didn't make the team since they couldn't get through the yo-yo test.

Suresh Raina is my favourite fielder in the whole of India. In fact from the world perspective, he is one of the best fielders, he has been around for a while. He was left out of the team from the fitness point of view. Virat Kohli wasn't happy and I think that has been interesting. As soon as the team got way more athletic, they have certainly improved their fielding because the guys are throwing themselves out.

But for me, all the sports I played as a kid allowed me to field really well. So the areas I would be focusing on would be agility, not just fitness. That's one thing. But fielding is not straight line running, it's a natural movement. It's not a linear effort.

And I think the Indian players, guys like Virat Kohli or KL Rahul, the guys who play football, are really good. Guys like Jadeja, they move really well.

Throwing is a big part of T20. With two T20 World Cups coming up in the next two or three years, 2020 in Australia and 2021 in India, one aspect the Indian side can improve is the throwing.

A lot of guys are quick to the ball because of their improved fitness but they not really strong through the throw.

So that's the area I would like to work upon. You can't coach the X factor but sometimes a little bit rubs off. You want to inspire and empower the players in your team. It's something I enjoy. I love coaching and I think I am a very positive person.

At this stage, the way India is playing, the positive results they are getting, I am sure they have a very positive team both on and off the field.

Tell us about your experience as the coach of Mumbai Indians and rubbing shoulders with Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting

That's the interesting thing about the IPL. Before the IPL, you had Indian coaches coach the national team, although John Wright was the first non-Indian coach.

A South African guy was coaching the South African side, same thing in Pakistan, in New Zealand and in Australia. The coaches of the countries were their ex-players.

What the IPL has done is to show that cricket is the same language. We speak the same language regardless of where we grew up playing cricket. A lot of it is very similar.

You work with those sort of names. Tendulkar and Ponting batting at the start of the order didn't work as Ricky didn't have a great IPL. He ended up dropping himself. It was interesting because I played against Ricky Ponting. He was literally a fighter. And you think how am I going to get along with this guy? And he was incredible. 

When you compete against somebody, you see their 'worst' side, which is probably their strongest side. But when you spend time with them in the same dressing room, your respect for them just keeps growing. It's been great fun working with them. You learn a lot because growing up in South Africa, we have very different conditions. It's great to see how players prepare in India. The guys perform well because even with all the ability they certainly put in a great deal of effort. 

How is South African cricket affected by Kolpak deals, which a lot of senior players take up during the peak of their careers?

It's not just the senior players who are leaving at the peak of their careers to play in the UK. We also have young players leaving South Africa at an early age and then going on to play for Australia or England.

Kevin Pietersen was only playing first-class cricket. He was in and out of the state team. And hats off to him. He went and made a career for himself. So a lot of players have gone at an early age. You can't really say we have lost them to the system. 

I think the sad part is that when senior players take the Kolpak route, you lose the experience that they offer at the state level.  

As young cricket players, when you are batting with somebody in a game, like Shreyas Iyer batting with Virat Kohli, it's incredible what it does for your confidence. It allows you to play with way more freedom. So I think when South African cricket loses experienced players to Kolpak, it holds back the advancement of younger players in state teams a little bit. 

ALSO READ | Jonty Rhodes on why he prefers Virat Kohli over ugly duckling Steve Smith

So from that perspective, it has affected us. But again, we have a pool of players, we have a good school system in South Africa still producing great cricket players. Now it's a matter of retaining them throughout the system, from academy level to state level.

As an ambassador of surfing in India, how is the sport growing here?

When we first started, we had just 30 surfers. Now we are getting 30 surfers per age group. When we started, the youngest surfer was probably 16 or 17 years old and now they are 10. We have lady surfers too.

Surfing is now an Olympic sport. Sadly, there will be no Indian surfers in the Olympics in Japan next year but it has inspired people here.  

So from that point of view, there is a great opportunity for Indian surfers to make a name for themselves. There's 5,000 km of coastline in India but no surf culture.

The growth has been incredible but there is still great scope.

Any advice you would like to give to younger athletes?

The key to being a good sports player is the importance of practice. My father who is 80 and a sports master in South Africa taught me about the importance of practice. He says people will tell you that practice makes perfect, but it's only half the story. It is perfect practice that makes perfect. 

He saw 9-year-olds running around and making noise in school achieving nothing. He would rather see somebody work for 15 minutes as if it is a match, even if it's a nine-year-old. That was such a good lesson for me as a young cricket player. 'Jonty you got to practise like you are playing a game,' he would say. I think whatever sport you are doing, your preparation is the key because once the game starts, it is too late. A lot of sports really rely on instincts. Cricket is a total game of habit. 

So you have to practise like you are playing in a game. Keep it simple!

FAVOURITES: 

Indian dish: Mutton Rogan Josh

Surfing point in India: Covelong Point, Tamil Nadu

Teammate: Hansie Cronje/Andrew Hudson

Best fielder right now: Martin Guptill, Ravindra Jadeja comes in a close second

Kagiso Rabada or Jasprit Bumrah: Rabada early in the innings, Bumrah at the end of it

Virat Kohli or Steve Smith: Virat Kohli as Steve Smith hits the ugliest hundreds I have ever seen

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