There is no doubt about it: Jonty Rhodes has it in abundance. It is called charisma. The diminutive South African, who is undoubtedly the world's best fielder, will be guesting in an Irish jersey for six matches here against South Africa A next July and there is no doubt his effervescent personality will have left an indelible imprint on us before he departs. You can be sure that some of his A team friends will be sorry to have taken on his throwing arm, too, which will please us enormously.
The way Jonty had the young fans following him about when Hansie Cronje brought his friends back last July was like the fabled pied-piper reincarnate. This third in the series of world-class players' participation in Ireland comes about again through the continued support of Independent Newspapes Chairman Dr AJF O'Reilly, who sponsored the involvement of Hansie Cronje and Steve Waugh in 1997 and 1998. Rhodes' three-week stay will include playing for Ireland in two three-day and four one-day matches against a South Africa-A squad who are coming as part of Dr Ali Bacher's (Chairman, ICC Development Committee) grand design towards securing One-Day-International status for Ireland.
Jonty Rhodes in action for South Africa against Ireland at Strangford Road, Downpatrick last July. His breezy innings helped South Africa recover from a poor start. The game had to be abandoned because of rain. (Photo: Ian Johnston)
National Coach Mike Hendrick's great frustration has been getting our players to believe they can compete at a high level, but inspired by Cronje, and Waugh during August when Australia A were distinctly uncomfortable here on four occasions, the gap is narrowing. Rhodes will certainly have Irish players of all ages brimming with self-belief, too.
One Day International status is the aim. Bangladesh and Kenya are already in that category with the nine Test countries, and Ireland and Scotland are next up. The fact that Ireland beat the Asians in Waringstown, and Northern Ireland repeated the exercise in the Commonwealth Games obviously boosted the cause.
Of course, until there is at least a part-time pro game here the gap will be difficult to bridge, but as Dr Bacher said in Dhaka where he was attending the pre-World Cup competition when the Rhodes visit was announced: "I have no doubt Jonty Rhodes will stimulate the Irish senior side and help towards the objective of Ireland achieving One Day International status. And, of course, he will be an absolute inspiration. to the youngsters.
With European Championships being introduced at Under-15, 17 and 19 levels, Rhodes' boyish enthusiasm and ability to pass on tips will be particularly beneficial to these squads. Jonathan Neill Rhodes' (30) Test career seemed to be on the wane a couple of years ago but his batting performance in the five-Test series against England proved his character. Of those who played in all five matches, only skipper Cronje could claim better batting: Cronje (7 innings) 401 runs (ave 66.83), with Rhodes (also 7 innings) weighing in with 367 (52.43). Rhodes contribution to any match was probably best summed up by Steve Waugh before a ball was bowled last summer:
"He is the guy who sets the mood and tempo of the game as well as lifting the spirits of the players around him and I don't believe the South Africans realise how much less the pressure on the opposing batsmen is without his infectious enthusiasm."Jonty Rhodes does more than just play cricket and practise when he is on tour. Equipped with his digital camera and laptop computer he captures the scenic and cricketing highlights of his trip and also updates his own web site on the Internet!