Philip Boylan interviewed Jonty Rhodes on his arrival and again at the end of his three week spell in Ireland during the 1999 season.
PEOPLE stopped and stared, as they usually do, when Jonathan Neil Rhodes passes by. There was nothing rude about the way they checked him up and down as he made a brief call to Clontarf on Saturday where Merrion were in the process of carving out a thrilling last-ball win over Pembroke in the Lewis Traub League final.
Like all mere mortals, they wondered how an apparently normal looking fellow of average build and no more than 5'8" tall could be still walking in a straight line after a decade crash-landing around the cricket fields of the world after making impossible catches. There is a simple explanation: "I land on my chest so it is like being in a car crash. I suffer whiplash at least once a week so I see a chiropractor at least once a month to make sure my spine is in alignment." The man has no intention of becoming the hunchback of Notre Dame reincarnate.
Though he politely protests that he is not a legend in his own lifetime, it is precisely because he is so that Jonty Rhodes will be spreading the word among us for the next three weeks through the support of Independent Newspapers Chairman Dr AJF O'Reilly, setting out for home on July 26, his thirtieth birthday. Treading a path established by Steve Waugh last year and Hansie Cronje the year previously, Rhodes will guest for Ireland in six matches between July 13 and 25 and hold coaching clinics for national and provincial squads of all age groups.
His sojourn here is part of the masterplan drawn up by the ICC Development Chairman, his fellow South African Dr Ali Bacher, who is persuading world stars to spend time in cricket developing nations like ours. With eyes not surprisingly a little sunken after a 24-hour journey from Durban, Bord Failte would have thought it unfair to tell him that he will certainly earn his daily bread getting his new Irish teammates to believe in themselves again and then begin the climb towards promised One-Day International status.
National Coach Mike Hendrick and skipper Angus Dunlop knew the messiah would be arriving in town this week, but they could not have known how badly they would need him. They will explain that there were three bad days at the office last week: the manner of successive losses to Scotland, Wales and England amateurs, was numbing and Jonty Rhodes' knowledge and infectious inspiration is needed like never before.
What does he expect to contribute to Irish cricket? "I will concentrate on the one-day game. I saw them last year (he played at Downpatrick and saw the game at Castle Avenue) and the fielding wasn't great; it really wasn't. I know that it is an amateur side but I will try to convince them that they can be much better." Sure he looks like a schoolboy who has been shaving for more than a decade but five minutes after meeting him the misconception that cricket must be his only life is in the bin. He is thorough, but not fanatical, in the way he approaches cricket.
"I've really enjoyed the game but it is not the priority. I've had such an up and down career, particularly in Tests, that you cannot afford to let it get you down. You cannot go around thinking that you must score just to stay in the side. There is enough pressure out there already."
Liverpool manager of yore Bill Shankley used to bark that winning at football was not a matter of life and death; that it was far more important. Rhodes sees the bigger canvas. If you did not see him during last month's World Cup, hard luck!
"It is very unlikely that I will play in another. I have had a great time, I love playing the game, but I am finding the long absences away from home more difficult all the time."
He's been there, done that, so what does he expect to be doing in ten years time? "Well, I have a Bachelor of Commerce degree which I have never used, and I think I would be happy running a business based at home." He is a man driven by a strong Christian ethic, which helped in the dark days when he was out of the Test side for more than a year and, most recently, when he was part of that never to be forgotten scene at Edgbaston after the World Cup semi-final when South Africa lost out to Australia.
Such was South Africa's utter conviction that they had the ability to win the trophy that when the fall came Rhodes candidly admits that there were tears flowing freely in the dressing room. "I've never seen so many guys crying." How was Jonty? "In fact, I think it was the sense of proportion that I drew from my faith which had me consoling others rather than feeling too sorry for myself."
In case you get the impression that the next couple of weeks will include hot-gospel sessions at practice, forget it. He admits to the odd beer "though I'm not a social drinker."
You reason that as he is the best fielder in the world by a distance in most peoples' minds it has to be an obsession. It is almost unacceptably disappointing when he says it is not, and then tells you that "I only spend about ten minutes a day more than the rest" of his South African teammates honing those skills which have made him Lord of the Dance around the point position on the cricket stage. Ten minutes a day! How one loves to hate the truly gifted. Jonty explains his tigerish displays in such a matter-of-fact way that you are grudgingly obliged to accept his explanation.
"My father was the same build. He was a scrum-half and I have the same strong legs and speed over five yards which is important where I field, but I couldn't cover the boundary in the same as, say, Allan Donald, who is very fast and has a terrific arm." There is no problem envisaging Jonty as a Springbok scrum-half, but though the pedigree was there, a childhood accident could have robbed us of treasured cameos on the cricket field. The start of it all was that fantastic dive at the wicket to run out Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq in the 1992 World Cup (before Inzamam lodged copyright of run-out disasters!).
We are, in fact, lucky to be experiencing Rhodes. He cracked his head badly as a child and was told that he must not play contact sports because, in simple terms, epileptic attacks were a real possibility if he got a bad blow to the head. "I have been knocked out twice, by deliveries by Allan Donald and Devon Malcolm, as most would if they were hit on the head, but thankfully, there have been no serious consequences." And, won't Ireland be thankful that he did not waste his life as a scrum-half? Chorus: "Yes."
On TV replays and umpiring: "I am quite happy to see technology applied as far as it can reasonably go. Even to include lbw decisions."
On drugs and cricket: "I would not feel the slightest sympathy even for a teammate who was caught. I would be really upset if someone was taking my place at backward point because of performance enhancing drugs."
Three weeks later, Jonty summarised his impressions of the Irish scene.
On approach to the game: "I hope that they have learned from the fact that I always give 120 per cent."
On learning quickly: "At top level you have to learn to adapt. I struggled in the early matches with the different pitches here, and I think the Irish guys, while very adept at scoring when the ball was in line, found it difficult to come to terms with the fast men when the line was just outside the off stump."
The future: "There are some very fine players in the senior side, but it is difficult to see some of them being able to change their mindset. Some will adapt, but there are others who will struggle because they have been used to playing the game just as a recreation. You have got to identify people willing to change within the Under 17s and Under 19s. You also get the feeling that for some, playing for the club is more important than playing for Ireland. That has got to change."
Attitude: "I think that the big difference between the Irish side and the Academy side was the latter's positive attitude. I don't think the Irish have the right, hard, attitude yet. The Under 17s and 19s are also too happy to lose their wickets. South Africa has just about got the right attitude; it is not as dour as the traditional English game and not as cavalier as the West Indian attitude."
Bowling: "If you don't have really fast bowlers you have got to have swing bowlers, particularly for the one day game, who can bowl six out of six in the right area. It is no use bowling four good ones and two bad ones; that is a problem I have seen here."
Anybody in the Irish side, as they now stand, who could get into a South African state side? Short pause: "Two. I've been really impressed with Kyle McCallan. He's a very good off-spinner, who takes great pride in his performance. I've been impressed with Barry Archer, too. He's very compact and a gutsy player."
Slight disappointment: "Sometimes Irish players stand around when there is a misfield or something. That for me was a surprise. Body language is so important. You would not get that in a South African side; team spirit and support have to be very important."
What next? "You've got to get 14 or 15 one day specialists together for more time." Those with big cheque books, please form an orderly queue!