He's indispensable. He need not bat. Need not bowl either. He just needs to field. Like he always does. Mercurial, athletic and agile.
"Where's Jonty?". One of the guys asked.
"He's on his way. Will be here in minute or two" said another guy.
"Ok... Let’s go for the toss."
If Jonty's coming takes time, the toss waits. And so does the game. Such is his importance to the team. I have seen a few Jontys since childhood. Two or three probably. There weren't many.
So, who's Jonty? Jonty is anyone who is the BEST fielder in the team since my school days till almost the end of my graduation days. He's indispensable. He need not bat. Need not bowl either. He just needs to field. Like he always does. Mercurial, athletic and agile. Batting and bowling are Add On packages for him. And if he bats or bowls well, everyone cheers for him. There were no aberrations while he is fielding. The ball sticks to his hand like a piece of iron does to a magnet, there weren’t any misfields in the ground fielding and the throws have always been flat and accurate. The catches he took were clean, whether one handed or with both hands, orthodox or reverse cupped and whether he dived or didn't dive.
There is always an artistic beauty while he is fielding, as though all of it has come naturally to him or letting others think it's all instinctive to him, unapologetically ignoring the amount of preparation he puts through to become awesome. Hence the sheer joy in watching him field or the perfection that leaves us in awe, makes us nickname the best fielder of our team as JONTY. So much so that nobody calls him by his real name.
Fielding has always been a shadowed skill of cricket. With so much importance to batting and bowling, the skill of fielding has been looked upon as added benefit but not as a mandatory qualification. Starting as kids, everyone wants to become a batsman. Not until discovering their true strengths that one chooses and shapes into a fine bowler. Fielding, as a special skill, is left behind in the fourth place, giving a third place on the podium to Wicket Keeping. Of course, only those good at fielding can become good Wicket Keepers. So, they both go hand in hand.
Ricky Ponting named his top 5 fielders namely Paul Collingwood at 5, AB De Villiers at 4, Jonty Rhodes at 3, Herschelle Gibbs at 2 and Andrew Symonds at 1. The reason he placed Gibbs ahead of Rhodes is because of Gibbs’ ability to strike the stumps often. The reason he placed Symonds at 1 is that he believes Symonds’ range of movement and the distance he covers on either side of him, making the gaps look smaller. But of course, perceptions. And they differ. For anyone who has been following cricket in the last three decades, the first name that comes to their mind is Jonty Rhodes.
Jonty Rhodes is synonymous with Cricket fielding and the reason why many of the agile fielders in the backyard cricket have been nicknamed as Jonty. His runout of Inzamam in 1992 World Cup is one of the groundbreaking moments that changed the dimensions of Cricket fielding. Inzamam attempted a slog to leg side and missed the ball which hit him on the front pad and rolled towards point. Inzamam ran down the wicket and midway through, he realized that Imran Khan at Non-Striker’s end wasn’t interested at all. He turned to run back. At this point Inzamam had half the distance to cover than the distance between stumps and Jonty. A direct hit would have got Inzamam out. But if it was a direct hit, it wouldn’t have been one of the iconic moments in Cricket history. Jonty said he would have had 50% chance if he threw at stumps and 100% chance if he ran towards stumps. The decision taken by Jonty would have spawned from his trust on his own sprinting ability or having observed Inzamam’s running between wickets, but whatever the reason might be, he decided to run. He ran like a Cheetah with ball in his right hand and by the time he is 2 metres away from the stumps, he leapt into air and destroyed all three stumps, with him flying horizontally in the air. The stumps were a mess, all three of them lying dead on ground, Jonty ended up sliding after the stumps, with wicket keeper David Richardson jumping over Jonty. Brian McMillan appealing for LBW was a bit stunned to see what happened at the Striker’s end, only to find, the other umpire Steve Bucknor at Square Leg rising his finger for the runout.
That moment changed the way fielding is seen in cricket. In the past two decades, the game has seen fielders like Paul Collingwood, Andrew Symonds, Ricky Ponting, Mohd Kaif, AB de Villiers, Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, David Warner and Suresh Raina.
Even in Jonty’s time there were Mark Waugh and Mohd Azaharuddin. Slip catching has never been made look so easy. If a team has these two at first and second slip, it’s hard to imagine a drop. Now, the teams have fielding drills, fielding coaches, physios and video analysts. Fielding has facets like catching, ground fielding and throwing. The current teams have very good fielders. In teams like South Africa and New Zealand, it’s hard to find a bad fielder.
But the earliest exponents of the skill have possessed nothing but raw talent. Alec Bannerman was lauded as superb at mid-off and wonderfully safe catch by Wisden Almanack. Gilbert Jessop was hailed as an undisputed master at Cover, with powerful and accurate throws. Len Braund is said to be one of the greatest slip fielders of all time and held more than 500 catches in first class cricket. The fact that all these have started playing cricket before 1900, makes them pioneers of the skill.
Vic Rchardson of Australia attracted sheer attention by his fielding, making him the best fielder of his time. As Wisden noted, his speed, agility and safe catching makes him prominent at any position. Hemu Adhikari, like Jessop, was brilliant at covers and has raised the fielding standards of Indian cricket to new levels. In early 1970s, India has two outstanding fielders in their team, Syed Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar. While Abid Ali is brilliant at ground fielding and catching, Solkar has a freakish ‘catches per matches’ ratio of 1.96 which is still a record unbroken. With no protective equipment in those days, he is the greatest short leg fielder the game has ever seen. Sad that, he retired at the age of 28 after playing 27 tests.
Colin Bland, played for South Africa before Jonty Rhodes was even born, has practised fielding to perfection. So much so that, he displayed his fielding skills to the watching public while practising. He must have been the first to give fielding exhibitions. His all round fielding skills have gathered audience. Cricketer of the year – 1966, Wisden noted that “Spectators went especially to see him perform.” Before the advent of fielding coaches, before fielding drills were a part of training sessions and before the game took fielding seriously, he made fielding important and made people flock to watch his fielding and talk about it.
Wherever I go, if I see people playing backyard cricket, I just wait an extra moment to watch them play and look around to see where “he” is. Among the group of people having fun, I’d search for “him” who moves like fluid, runs like cheetah and catches like he is born for it.
I’d think, “Where’s Jonty?”
Raghunadha Sarma SVS
Cricket and Travel enthusiast and an armchair critic. Had a below average stint at district level age group cricket. Worked as an Umpire in Andhra Cricket Association for 5years and Qualified as BCCI Level-1 Umpire. Has quit umpiring to pursue a full-time job, but still bleeds Cricket.