After around three decades of sporting isolation when South Africa were invited to the World Cup jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand in 1992, the Proteas had a mercurial fielder in the side. Jonty Rhodes made his debut in their opening game of the event at the Sydney Cricket Ground against Australia on February 26. Although he was also a good batsman, he became popular more for his fielding ability. The way he got Pakistan’s Inzamam-ul-Haq run out in that event captured the attention of the whole world. Jonty, who is now 45, played four World Cups for South Africa from 1992 to 2003. In his 11-year career he scored 2532 runs in 52 Tests at an average of 35.66. And in 245 One-day Internationals he has to his credit 5,935 runs which he scored at an average of 35.11.
He retired from Test cricket in 2000 and quit limited-overs cricket in 2003.
Rhodes was in Karachi for a business purpose this last week. The News on Sunday had a detailed talk with him. Here are the excerpts from the interview.
The News on Sunday: Who are the hot favourites for World Cup 2015?
Jonty Rhodes: I think that different teams can win the World Cup. Australia between 1999 and 2007 won three consecutive titles. If you ask anybody from any country he will say Australia are a very strong side.
South Africa have not yet made it to the final of the World Cup but they have a very strong side.
But if you look at the sides all around, I think Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, England, (maybe, maybe not), Australia and New Zealand, who will be playing in their own conditions, would be very tough teams to beat and so are the West Indies. While sitting on the fence I would love to see South Africa winning the World Cup.
But I think the sides who will be playing good cricket on the day will be very difficult to beat.
TNS: What is the realistic chance for South Africa?
JR: I think what South Africa have done is quite well. They had a two-year building period. Their Test team has been very solid, and has great performances. The one-day side, I think, they have not been sure of their best XI players, so they have made many different changes in different series. I like the balance of the South African team. They have strong batting and are well-balanced, having young exciting players. Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, who has been injured against Australia, and David Miller, who has done very well in the IPL and is a good finisher of the game. In Australia, especially, your top order needs to build a good foundation and I think South Africa have that ability. We have also good pace-bowlers. Morkel and Dale Steyn have been playing well and so good is Imran Tahir.
In the recent series, Australia no doubt played tough cricket, but South Africa had come close to winning a couple of games. In the World Cup environment a guy can win you the game when it comes to the knock-out stage. And I think South Africa have got those quality players who can take the team over the line.
TNS: Are you satisfied with the preparatory plan of the Proteas?
JR: I think they have returned now and having played in Australia certainly would have given them good idea of what they want to do. I think the danger is to play too much cricket while going into the World Cup. The World Cup is a long tournament. A few matches you will have to play first and then you will go into the tournament. If South Africa are happy with the way they have done their preparations in the conditions they would play in in the World Cup and if they know their team which would be playing in the World Cup, it’s not a bad strategy.
But if they start in December, straight into January and February and then onto the world cup then they would certainly run out of steam, particularly at the later part of the event when it would matter the most.
TNS: What are Pakistan’s chances?
JR: Pakistan are also very dangerous. The fifty-overs cricket is all about match-winners. And it appears to me that Pakistan have match-winners. Consistency has been a problem for Pakistan but in the World Cup environment when you get into the knockout stages you need a match-winner and Pakistan have enough of those in their side in both batting and bowling.
They are one of the seven teams who can win the World Cup. And for me to say this is the player, this is the player — I think all of them can turn the game.
TNS: Had Pakistan prepared lively wickets in the UAE, it could have prepared them much better for World Cup. What do you think?
JR: Look, India just arrived in Australia to play some matches. They have arrived after a whitewash series against Sri Lanka in their home conditions. The difference is that they played so much cricket. Pakistan are playing in the UAE as hosts and those wickets are slow and the ball turns slowly. The problem would be to just arrive and start playing in the World Cup. During the tournament it is very difficult to change the way you play. You would be comfortable as a team if you have got a game plan, you know your strength and weaknesses because you cannot work on those during the tournament. All these things need proper attention.
Every team has different strategies for preparations. Some teams want two to three months in Australia for only playing one-day cricket. Some teams prefer to have a break and start the tournament in a very strong and fresh note. Pakistan and other teams of the subcontinent have generally struggled on the bouncy tracks. India’s batting line-up was so strong. But when they got little bit of swing in England, they faltered in Test cricket. But the limited overs cricket has different environment and demands.
In Test conditions, you play in very different way.
I think confidence is also a big part of preparation. Even for South Africa, AB de Villiers has said well, “We lost the series but we have done some very good things.”
I think if a team enters into World Cup brimming with confidence with their players having the ability to adapt quickly to the conditions, then it is a plus point and it also should help Pakistan.
TNS: Is it right to include tainted fast bowler Mohammad Aamir in Pakistan’s team in future?
JR: It is a criminal activity — if you lock somebody for life and never give him opportunity. I think it was also the saddest thing for Cronje. He was the only player who said, “Yes, I have made the mistake”. Other players at the time of investigation did not say anything. Before match-fixing Hansie was a role model for many people and was a great speaker. He could have been used to talk to the young players.
Every event you play the anti-corruption unit makes the same presentation. I think it has been done fifty times in the last six years. If you get a player who has experienced that for a small amount of money.
I think it is also about rehabilitation. I think it is upto him (Aamir) to show to the people that he has learnt from his mistakes and is prepared to make a contribution to the game of cricket. I think Hansie could have done so. The cricket boards could have used him in that way.
TNS: Did the stunning run out of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the 1992 World Cup transform your career as a fielder?
JR: An amazing thing is that it was one picture taken by a photographer which changed my existence. I was a middle-order batsman, not contributing enough runs with the bat but used to save at least 20 runs in fielding. And for quite a long time that was enough because I was counted as an all-rounder, scoring 20 to 30 with the bat and saving 20 in fielding and the average was about 50 which was good. My fielding was an important part of my game. It was not something planned but instinctive. Being a fielder I would love to be in the field. It really catapulted me and captured the attention of the world cricket that Jonty is a good fielder. We had 27 years of sporting isolation. We came back to play in the 1992 World Cup. Kepler Wessels was our captain. He had played for Australia and was a very hard man and he just said because of sporting isolation we did not have much cricketing expertise but the two areas in which we could be the best in the world were fitness and fielding. It was not just me, but the entire team. Right from Allan Donald to Brian McMillan, the entire team was striving that we as a team can be the best fielders of the World Cup. I was not just one individual.
TNS: You also worked as fielding coach of Pakistan. How was that experience?
JR: I only worked for ten days with the Pakistan team (four days with the national team, three days with the Pakistan A team and three days with 15 coaches).
It is not easy to change somebody in three days. Cricket is all about habit and practice. What I was here to show to the Pakistan team was that you can achieve if you are in a good position when the ball comes to you. My whole focus was to show to them what is possible, not to be Jonty Rhodes, but just to be the best that they could be.
TNS: What do you think about ‘Big Three’ and its implications for the less-powerful countries?
JR: It is a difficult environment to be in because cricket is a business and commercial activity.
Countries play against each other and want to generate income. I think there has to be a way. Cricket has experienced so many changes the way the game is being played. Cricket is much different now from what it was a hundred years ago. If you want business on the field you have to be flexible and keep changing. Maybe in three terms people would say it was not the right move. But right now the ‘Big Three’ believe in it. As long as it is for the benefit of the game, it will be motivating. It is not all about profit. The danger would have been if it was not a right decision for the cricket. If people just keep carrying on regardless, not listening to advice, caution, then it would be a problem. The game is the same. There is change in the administration, the rules, the equipment that the guys use, the way the game is approached, I think it’s safe.
TNS: Were you very close to Bob Woolmer and Hansie Cronje?
JR: They were my good friends. Obviously, Bob was the first coach to arrive in South Africa, having been in England where he was coaching Warwickshire. I was often criticised in the modern world with the way I was batting. I used to sweep spinners. My strength as a hockey player was that I was very wresty, quicker on my feet. After Bob arrived I was dropped from the Test squad in 1996. Bob had identified my weaknesses which I had to remove and after that I came as a much stronger player.
And I was also very close to Hansie Cronje. We played against each other from age-13 in different school tournaments; then at the age of 17 in national school tournaments for two years; and in under-21 and national team also. Our wives were good friends so we also spent good time at his home. For me it was a real tragedy. Both of them have passed away. Although people say that his involvement in match-fixing has tainted everything he had done, he has also made positive contribution to the game of cricket.
TNS: Did you play for South Africa hockey team?
JR: After a 27-year sporting isolation when the South African cricket team was invited to 1992 World Cup they were also hoping the hockey team would also be invited for the same year’s Barcelona Olympics in July-August. But that was not possible because qualification was a long process. There was no invitation. They chose the squad but never got to play.
Then ahead of 1996 Atlanta Olympics, South African hockey team needed someone better in the frontline. I was a striker. Although I had not played hockey for one year, I was fit because of my cricket. One of the national slectors was my state’s hockey coach. He told me when I finish the World Cup I should come for hockey selection and camp. He told me they would like to take me to Atlanta. We played in 1996 ICC World Cup and lost in the quarter-finals against the West Indies. Then we went to Sharjah for a tri-nation series, which also had Pakistan and India. In the final, I pulled hamstring and was supposed to come back for hockey assignment. But because of the injury which forced me to take rest for at least two weeks I just said sorry. And 1996 was a possibility for Atlanta Olympics but again it did not happen. It was cricket which had chosen me in fact. I have never got to play for South Africa hockey team.
TNS: No foreign teams come to Pakistan which affects the country’s cricket. What do you think?
JR: I have just come from Dubai. I was watching a Test match between Pakistan and New Zealand and there were 100 people in the stadium. Had it been in Pakistan there would have been 20,000 people cheering for the local team.
I had come to Lahore’s National Cricket Academy with Bob Woolmer in 2006 and there were kids playing in the street everywhere and you know young talent is identified in the street. This country has a lot of talent. Now international players of Pakistan are playing their home matches in the UAE and are away from their people. It’s sad to see. If you take a consensus of the world cricket, teams are not prepared to come here because of the security issues. The relevant people must think about it. But for me as a cricketer it is sad to watch Pakistan’s players playing their home matches in Dubai.