Jonty Rhodes

'Fielding isn't work when you're enjoying it'

"I got more bruises, grass burns and cuts in practice than in match play." Jonty Rhodes talks about what makes a good fielder

Interview by Anand Vasu  |  

You ain't going nowhere:

You ain't going nowhere: "I found that if I dived full-length I could generally reach every ball" Duif du Toit / © Getty Images

If you want to reach Jonty Rhodes in South Africa, you call his office, Standard Bank, and he answers the phone with a chirpy "Jonty speaking", much like any other executive would. His card advertises the fact that he has a degree in commerce, but not that he played 297 international matches. In South Africa, where Rhodes has not played in two years, his cricket is virtually behind him, and the public "forget you quite quickly".

But not in India. Rhodes came over as a brand ambassador for Surf Excel, one of the country's largest brands in its category, purely on the strength of his celebrity as a fielder. Who better to endorse washing powder than the man who made getting flannels dirty fashionable? It is difficult to think of any other cricketer who is bankable simply because of how he fielded. Rhodes is. That's why, when he talks about fielding, you listen.

What is the key to being a good fielder?
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.

Apart from hard work and practice, what else would you say is integral to being a good fielder?
I suppose 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't practise some things, like that run-out of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the 1992 World Cup when you threw yourself at the stumps.
No I didn't ever specifically practise diving into the wicket with the ball in my hand! But I had been diving around at point and that run-out didn't feel too different. Well, other than that you generally throw the ball and not yourself at the stumps. It wasn't something I had thought about before. Sometimes that's the key with cricket - the more you think, the more trouble you get into. If you've done the work and put in the practice, you just have to let your mind and your reactions take over.

Different fielding positions need different skill sets. Tell us a bit about that.
At point, anticipation is important. And you need to expect every ball to come your way. I liked to read the batsman's body language, because from point you can't watch the ball out of the bowler's hand at 140kph. So I like to watch the batsman for cues - if he's driving, the ball may still come to me off the edge, or even if he is working the ball to midwicket, it could come off the leading edge. I've found that by cutting down the angle you give yourself an advantage. When you get closer the ball may come quicker to you, but I found that if I dived full-length I could generally reach every ball, as opposed to being five metres further back and letting the ball get past me. It's a bit like a soccer goalkeeper defending a penalty.

I thought my primary role at backward point was stopping runs. Even if I didn't stop the ball cleanly, if I parried towards gully or something, the batsman wouldn't run and that was my job done. If I picked up a catch or effected a run-out, it was a bonus. That's what I had in mind and that's what I practised. That's another key - you have to practise like you play; you can't expect to turn up on the day of a match and pull off catches and effect run-outs if you haven't practised.

What about fielding in slips?
Fielding in the slips needs soft hands, like when you're batting. A guy like Mark Taylor, he's right up there. He had great hands, no matter if it was Shane Warne bowling or Glenn McGrath. He took some fantastic catches. I've tried to field in the slips and my hands just aren't soft enough. Also, you need to be a more relaxed kind of guy rather than an excitable, jumping-around kind of person like me.

People ask, "How did you pull off that catch in the game?" I feel like saying, "Well I caught 20 of those at practice yesterday"

Anticipation can be dangerous in that if you guess wrong you could be made to look foolish. Has this happened to you?
Yes, a few times. Sometimes Pat Symcox and I would talk in Afrikaans about where he wanted to bowl. So I would walk to my left or to my right depending on where we thought the guy would hit to. Sometimes the ball went straight to where I originally was and the batsman got two! Now and again we got it wrong. But I wanted to keep the batsman guessing, try and create some confusion in his mind. I wasn't too fussed even if I did get it slightly wrong because Symcox and I had a plan. It wasn't as though I was doing my own thing out of nowhere.

In the split second that you have, how do you make the decision whether to move or dive, go one-handed or two-handed?
The decisions get made in the days and weeks before. You can't come to a game and ask, "What am I going to do today?" Those things should be instinct. People ask, "How did you pull off that catch in the game?" I feel like saying, "Well I caught 20 of those at practice yesterday." I may have dropped 20 as well. But at least my body knows what to do when the ball is in a certain area, and it takes over. If you have to plan and execute every move the field, you're going to be left behind.

I got more bruises, grass-burns and cuts in practice than in match play. Kepler Wessels had the same sort of philosophy with his batting. He treated the first 15 minutes in the nets like the real thing. He didn't play any loose cover-drives, big cuts or pulls. You could say I practised really, really hard. In a match situation you don't have the time to think, "Should I go one-handed?" You need to let your reaction take over, and that will only happen if the habit has been formed in practice.

Do you have to make adjustments fielding to different players?
Each guy has his own strength. Take Mark Waugh - he had such great hands; he could drop the ball and steal a quick single. But his brother was totally different. Steve Waugh always wanted to hit the ball through you. So you did your homework on the players, their style and their strengths, and positioned yourself differently. I certainly didn't stand in the same place for every batsman.

How do you account for the fact that South Africa's fielding was so good even when they came back after 27 years out of international cricket?
When I went to the World Cup in 1992, Kepler was our captain, and barring him, we had a very inexperienced team. Whether you were 22 like I was or Hansie Cronje was, or 32 like Peter Kirsten was, we all had the same international experience. So Kepler told us, "Even if you can't make up for the lack of experience, there are two areas in which you can be better than any team - fitness and fielding." The Australians were rated the best fielding side. They had Dean Jones; they had Allan Border who, though he was getting a bit slower around the field, had a deadly throw. David Boon was a great short-leg fielder. So, it wasn't just what I was going to do, but a team decision. I just happened to dive and break the wickets and this guy took a great photograph and everyone got excited. Fielding was an easy way for me to impress the fans - if I dived around and pulled off a couple of catches and scored 20-odd, the fans loved it. The selectors soon saw through that, though, [laughs]. They wanted me to score runs too!

Would you say your fielding, in addition to your batting, put you in the allrounder bracket?
Not really, but it certainly gave me the edge when there were two or three batters that the selectors were thinking about for one spot. If we were much of a muchness then I got the nod because of my fielding. I was initially chosen in the team for the 1992 World Cup just for my fielding. I was averaging 27 or 28 for my provincial team, and that's not very attractive at the provincial level. There was Daryl Cullinan and Mike Rindel who were scoring heavily for their provinces and after the first trip in 1991 to India there were a few senior guys in the team and they wanted someone young who fielded well. That's why I got selected. I never looked at myself as an allrounder. My job was to score runs. Saving a few was an extra that I gave to the team.

Did you ever worry that you might get injured throwing yourself about, and that this would affect your batting?
No. Not at all. If you're worried about injuring yourself and dive half-heartedly or chase tentatively, you're likely to do more damage to yourself than if you just throw caution to the wind and commit 100 per cent. I only had two broken bones in my cricket career, and that was something of a miracle really. One was Steve Waugh, the other was when a Kenyan came dancing down the wicket to Nicky Boje in the 2003 World Cup and hit one straight at me. I have had my fair share of sprained fingers, but those you can tape up and grin and bear it. I never once thought, "I better be careful about doing this because I may get injured and my place will be in jeopardy." Although I said I didn't think of myself as an allrounder, saving runs was part and parcel of my game. It wasn't as though I could hide away at third man or fine leg waiting till my turn to bat came.

"Then there's the ability to dive around - it helped me that I was a short guy" Neil Lane / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Is it irritating to be remembered more for your fielding than your batting?
No, not at all. It's nice to be remembered for something. I've had three trips to India last year. I haven't toured India since 1996 and I thought I would just slip in quietly. But from the moment you're in customs people recognise you, are chatting to you, asking about the cricket. I'm amazed. In South Africa, where I haven't played for two years, they forget you quite quickly. But in India the passion for cricket and the knowledge of the game in the public is something else.

In some ways you played the wicketkeeper's role, talking constantly, cheering the boys on.
In the World Cup in 1992, I had a lot of nervous energy. I believe adrenaline is harnessed fear. You can either be inhibited by your fear, or sharper because of it. That's what adrenaline does. We'd been playing in front of crowds of 5000 in domestic cricket in South Africa. Suddenly we were thrust into an environment where there were 50,000 watching us. The captain and the coach decided that rather than me standing in one place and bottling things up, I should use my energy to run around and gee the team up. We didn't have a spinner and needed to get through our 50 overs in time, so I also had to hurry things along. It was my role to fetch caps and move the markers for the fast bowlers. It wasn't just my decision, it was a team decision. I was fortunate in that the public really enjoyed the things that the team had assigned to me. The fact that I enjoyed doing these things came through to the public. It didn't seem like any effort to me.

What was the biggest day in the field for you?
In the field was against West Indies at the Brabourne Stadium in 1993 when I took five catches. Two of them were fairly straightforward, but three were diving either to the ball or to the left. It was such an exhausting day. Daryll Cullinan had to be carried off the field after we had had a stand of about 80-odd. I was so tired I had to drag, not carry, my bat off the field. Desmond Haynes had to retire and come back later because he was dehydrated. It was that sort of day. When you take one-handed catches with your shirt soaked in sweat, you remember them.

The catch of Sachin Tendulkar in Durban in a one-day game in 1997, that was special as well. He was a key player for the Indians and a lot of our gameplan revolved around getting him out. From that point of view, to take a catch so low, and get him out, was very satisfying.

When you take a low catch, how easy or difficult is it to know whether the ball has carried to you or not?
I think it is very, very hard to know whether you have taken a low catch cleanly when you're diving forward. But I think you can work out whether the ball has bounced. Sometimes in the slips the ball comes low all along and it's hard to tell. But I've only had one occasion where there's been doubt about a catch. When I caught Sachin Tendulkar in Durban, Geoffrey Boycott thought I hadn't taken it cleanly and said he wouldn't have walked. There was an occasion in 1993 when we were playing against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, and I'd taken a catch off Sanath Jayasuriya. He began to walk and I actually had to call him back because I knew the ball had bounced in front of me. So yeah, as a player you should know whether the ball has carried to you or not.

Why do you think cricketers from the subcontinent aren't as good fielders, traditionally, as those from South Africa or Australia?
I did a few promotional visits to India last year. In one of them I actually played a game of cricket with some of the leading stockists of the product. We played in one of the public parks. There was a young kid, about 14 or 15, who was a big fan, and asked if he could play. He was diving around, and on that surface even I wasn't too keen on throwing myself about. In South Africa and Australia we are fortunate in that we are very outdoor-oriented, the weather's good, and there's also green grass on the field. So kids can dive around, play rugby, get down to earth often. In the subcontinent, if I was age 12 and hoping for a long international career, I'm not too sure I'd be diving around because you might be breaking bones before you even make it to the big league. In South Africa and Australia it's also the lifestyle. Kids get used to throwing themselves around in other sports as well.

Would say you were the best because of sheer talent, or because of the work you put in?
No. Talented - not at all. But because I genuinely enjoyed what I did it allowed me to work harder than anyone else. The whole South African team trained really hard with fielding. But once that was done I'd go to the coach or the assistant coach, and say "Hit me 50 balls." I would put two goalposts out and have the coach stand five metres away and try and get the ball past me. There were plenty of individuals who were far more talented than I was. The ability to work hard at something because I loved it was the key to my success.

Anand Vasu is an associate editor at Cricinfo