The day Jonty Rhodes changed the definition of fielding in cricket

A video grab of the green blur that flew in to shatter Inzamam-ul-Haq’s (left) stumps

On March 8, 1992, during a World Cup match at Brisbane, a 22-year-old South African novice with a mushroom cut, ran out Inzamam-ul-Haq in the most dazzling manner. Jaideep Vaidya revisits the day that would change the fortunes of the player and the art of fielding in cricket.

The occasion is a Pakistan versus South Africa league game during the 1992 World Cup at Brisbane. Chasing a revised target of 194 from 36 overs, Pakistan are coasting along at 135 for two with a young Inzamam-ul-Haq and skipper Imran Khan in the middle.

Brian McMillan runs in to bowl to Inzamam, who tries to swipe him down mid-wicket, but misses. The ball hits his pads and goes towards backward point as Inzamam looks to steal a quick single. When he’s halfway down the pitch, he realises Imran’s not interested and turns back.

However, as he runs back to his crease, a bright green blur from the direction of backward point swooshes in smashes the stumps flat. Only after umpire Steve Bucknor raises his finger does Inzamam, and the thousands at the Wolloongabba, and the millions at home watching on their TV sets, notice that the blur is in fact a fielder. Not just any ordinary fielder, but one who would go on to be known as the best in world cricket for years to come.

It was a breakthrough moment for a mop-headed Jonty Rhodes, who was playing in his first tournament, as he was congratulated by his teammates for his acrobatics. The Proteas eventually won the match by 20 runs. And a star was born.

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Jonty!” screamed out a newspaper the next morning. As it turned out, it wasn’t a one-off show; Rhodes produced many such Superman antics on the field that soon earned him a reputation for his fielding. He dived, he leaped, he lunged, he defied gravity while patrolling the point-cover region throughout his career.

Whatever limitations he had as a batsman were made up for on the field. Rhodes was worth at least 30-35 runs on the field and, as his reputation grew, batsmen became vary of hitting the ball in his direction, and they dared not steal a single if it went to him. Bowlers in his team also loved having him around. Former teammate Clive Rice once told the BBC, “He made you look good when you were bowling. He could even cut off runs from bad balls.”

Rhodes soon got a world record to his name, which stands to date. In the 1993-94 Hero Cup against the West Indies at Bombay (now Mumbai), Rhodes took five catches standing in the point region, that helped his team win by 41 runs. Richie Richardson, the West Indies skipper, summed it up fittingly in his post-match chat with the media: “We suffered from ‘Jontivitis’!”

Unfortunately for cricket fans, Rhodes played in the pre-T20 era. His athleticism would have made him a trump card for any captain in the format. In 2003, to the dismay of millions of cricket fans around the world, Rhodes announced his retirement from ODIs at the end of the World Cup which was being hosted by his nation. However, he wasn’t to experience a fairytale ending as he broke his hand during a group match against Kenya and was ruled out of the tournament.

A commerce graduate, Rhodes went on to work for Standard Bank as an account executive. However, with his heart firmly attached to the game, he could not stay out of the emerald enclosure of the cricket field for long. Rhodes returned to the game as a fielding coach, first with the Mumbai Indians Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise and then with the South African national team; Rhodes holds both positions to date.

Mumbai Indians wicketkeeper batsman Aditya Tare told this writer about Rhodes’s fielding drills recently in an interview: “Jonty is an energetic guy. He must be 40-42 [actually 43], but he’s so energetic that he can match any of the youngsters in our team. His fielding sessions are not long; they are short and full of intensity.”

It’s no surprise that South Africa are regarded the best fielding outfit in the world of cricket. With Rhodes at the helm of things — first as a player and then as coach — it was bound to happen. He’s a guy whose never-depleting energy levels would make that bunny who is the mascot for a cell battery company look like an amateur. “He was effervescent,” said Rice. “I couldn’t believe that he could keep up that level of energy throughout the day without dropping dead.”

At 43, Rhodes continues to amaze one and all.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog – The Mullygrubber )