When Jonty Rhodes was on the field, batsmen were worried. No matter the quality of the bowler running towards them, there would be a nagging fear at the back of the mind about another threat lurking around the corner. Rhodes had that aura. Play the ball anywhere near him and you knew you wouldn’t win the battle. All you could hope for is to survive.
Watching cricket in the 1990s, one of the biggest attractions was Jonty Rhodes. While great players have been known to pull-in crowds for their abilities as batsmen or bowlers, Rhodes attracted audiences for his sheer genius as a fielder.
The game has seen many exceptional fielders before and after him, but it’s fair to say that no one made the art look as appealing as he did. When South Africa played matches during his time, you knew he’d be standing in that backward point position and you hope the ball went there each time.
In many ways, Rhodes redefined what fielding, often the most disregarded discipline in cricket, could bring to the table. He changed our perception of what was possible.
There are players whose catching ability is splendid. They manage to hold on to the ball no matter how fast or at what angle it comes at them. Then there are those who are natural athletes and save runs by using their speed and agility. But no one has ever brought it all together like Rhodes.
He took the most outrageous catches – with both hands and even one – everywhere he stood, he moved at the speed of light and ran out batsmen from hopeless positions, his throws were deadly accurate, and his ability to anticipate was second to none.
The number of jaw-dropping moments Rhodes provided on the field were plenty, to say the least. Who can ever forget his juggling act in the 1999 World Cup, when England’s Robert Croft thought he had hit the ball over him but he lept in the air, palmed it somehow, and dove behind to complete the catch.
Or in 2002, when Australian great Matthew Hayden crunched a square cut but Rhodes put his right hand out and plucked the ball out of thin air to stun everyone watching. Or the countless times he ran batsman out by running in from point and knocking down the stumps with his dead accurate throws.
For most fans, though, Rhodes’s greatest moment on the field has to be the run-out of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the 1992 World Cup. The image of him crashing into the stumps is one of the most fascinating ones the game has ever seen.
Another South African great AB de Villiers recently spoke about the impact that run-out had on him as a kid.
“Jonty Rhodes was the standout. Once again, from a young age, he had the biggest impact. When I was eight years old, I saw the run out live in the World Cup 1992. That had a huge impact on me,” De Villiers told BBC London’s Kevin Hand for Middlesex Cricket.
“I practiced that run out every day of my life. I had grass all over, blood but I had to practice that run out. I never had the opportunity to do that run out in my career. But it still inspired me so much to do special things on the field, to take catches for the team. That’s the way Jonty played. That’s the way I always wanted,” De Villiers added.
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, Rhodes spoke in great detail about his outlook towards fielding and what he thinks are the key attributes needed to be a good fielder.
Here’s what he had to say:
“First and foremost you have to enjoy being out there. If you’re enjoying it, and you’re loving what you’re doing, even if it is 90 overs in a Test match, it never really seems like hard work. That allows you to stay sharp and focused. Commentators often complimented me on my anticipation, but I was expecting every single ball to come to me. In fact I wanted every ball to come to me. Fielding can become hard work, but if you’re enjoying it then it doesn’t feel like work.
“Your reflexes need to be pretty sharp. It also helped that I had a decent speed off the blocks. You don’t need to be quick over 100 metres or anything, but you need to be good in a flat-out sprint for the first five or 10 metres. It helps you get to balls that batsmen thought would otherwise go past. Then there’s the ability to dive around - it helped me that I was a short guy. But there are big guys, like Andrew Symonds, who dive around. Sheer athletic ability plays a part.”
You can enjoy some of Jonty Rhodes’s greatest fielding moments here: