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'Entertainer' Rhodes strengthens his act

By Mark Nicholas

18 June 1998

IF AT all during the next five days the play should lose its lustre while England are at the wicket, take a few minutes off from the intensity of bat and ball and turn your attention to the entertainer, Jonty Rhodes.

Rhodes was a South African secret until the 1992 World Cup Down Under when, on a wet Brisbane afternoon, he threw himself, ball in hand, at the wicket to run out Inzamam-ul-Haq. The photograph of his horizontal, mud-covered body flying through the damp air and winning the photo finish was the action image of the tournament and a clear indication that the South Africans still had something of the extra special.

The Pollocks may not have been there or Procter, Richards or Bland, but in the split-second of bliss for the business of slow-motion replays Rhodes had brought energy, enthusiasm and supreme skill to the field of play. Few cricketers can do this, can truly turn a head or ensure a gasp for breath, but Rhodes can and is worth his weight in krugerrands for it.

He says he loves to field. He says he is a grubby fielder, a glorified goalkeeper whose game is to save runs and hold catches. He agrees he saves runs by reputation - not that England appeared to know it during the one-day series - and says that comparisons with the extraordinary Colin Bland are not relevant. ``Bland was in a different league for hitting the stumps, that exhibition he did at Canterbury many years ago was fantastic,'' he said. ``I miss the stumps too much, don't practise it enough, there don't seem to be enough hours in the day.''

The team say that Rhodes practises all the time: acceleration out of the blocks, diving, falling, standing up again, throwing from the floor, spinning, aiming, threatening. Rhodes says he doesn't tell he practises more than anyone else, but that is probably because it is a favourite thing, not a chore.

In the last two years his focus has returned too, to the technique and fascination of batting, which had got lost in the improvisation of the limited-overs game and in the expectation of his fielding theatre. On a short tour of New Zealand in 1995, he asked Bob Woolmer for a revamp and soon he began to play straighter again, to bat patiently and best of all to organise his batting brain.

``I hadn't been hitting the ball well,'' he admits, ``and it was difficult to change things during the busy domestic season and on tours I was increasingly considered as a one-day specialist. Now, after a lot of work and thought, I'm not premeditating any more, I'm playing bowling on its merit and consequently my hands are moving more smoothly through the line of the ball and I'm scoring either side of extra cover and straight down the ground.''

His innings of 95 at Edgbaston was a sparkling affair, played mainly off the back foot and featured quick-eyed pulled strokes, efficient drives and turns from hip past square leg. It was played when other South African batsmen would have dug a trench to grind it out, but Rhodes reminded his team, and perhaps England, that a counter-attack was an awkward tactic to resist. Mike Procter, a selector, reckoned he had never seen Jonty bat better. Barry Richards, an observer, agreed and thought the innings gave the South African team another dimension.

Jonty liked that and smiled. ``It's painful not fulfilling your role as a batsman, but now I'm contributing again. I can honestly say that I'm enjoying it more than ever.''

There are reasons for this other than simply the success. Cricket is the third thing in Rhodes's life behind his wife, Kate, and his deep religious faith.

HE did not think he would be picked for this tour - the one-day games at either end of it, maybe - but it did not concern him. ``If I'm meant to be in the team, I will be. I'm at peace with myself and I believe that Christianity gives me confidence and focus and eases pressure. Through the disciplines set by my father I was rather a goody-goody as a youngster, you know, no girlfriend, no smoking or drinking and few parties. I thought that that attitude alone was being a Christian, but nine years ago, when I was only 19, I met Kate, whose committed and practising faith gave me strength.''

He is not alone in the South African team, who have a number of players with their own silent though strong religious faith. None though have had to use that faith to deal with an extra strain, as Rhodes has done with his epilepsy.

He said: ``I've never really had fits or convulsions or medication even and my epilepsy was kept quiet when I was young, so that I would not be treated differently from other kids. I couldn't play rugby, that was all, because of the physical contact and the likelihood of concussion. Since the '92 World Cup immediately after South Africa's readmission to international cricket, people found out about it and now I'm involved in awareness campaigns and publicity. I receive hundreds of letters thanking me for being open about it. They say it is cool to have what Jonty's got, so I guess I'm glad that even in a small way I can help.''

All round, then, Rhodes is a good and talented egg. If you can find a moment to focus exclusively on him in the field, you will see the naturalness and spring in his movement, the anticipation, the effervescence with which he galvanises the other fielders and with which he supports the South African bowlers.

If you home in with the binoculars, do not be fooled by the cute look, the ruffled blond fringe, those baby-blue eyes, or indeed the sheer innocence of the whole package. It is a package with a steel belief and a keen competitive edge and it might now, for the first time, good and proper, be ready to make a consistent and considerable impact on the Test match stage.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 18 Jun1998 - 14:39