There has been huge change in focus of fielding over the years, says Jonty Rhodes in exclusive interview
To still be considered as the greatest fielder of all time, 14 years after hanging up his boots, is a testament to how great a fielder Jonty Rhodes was. The enigmatic South African, who loves India with all his heart, has such a strong connection with the country and the sport of cricket that the game keeps calling him back.
He had just decided to take a break from cricket shortly after leaving the Mumbai Indians after nine seasons of being their fielding coach and mentor. However, in his words, he has been "pulled back into the game", albeit in a completely different set-up this time.
StarPick Fantasy, an online fantasy gaming portal, decided to onboard Jonty as an advisor, and who better than to advise them than someone who has been involved with the game for over 25 years now, as a player and as a coach.
Rhodes' involvement with the most successful IPL franchise goes back a long way. Apart from the first season, he was with the Mumbai Indians from 2009 onwards. As their fielding coach, he nurtured the players and developed their fielding skills
"Being the fielding coach in an IPL set-up nine years ago was quite interesting because, obviously, working with international players, it wasn't too difficult to impart the fielding ethics and the fielding ethos and work required.
Young Indian players present at the time all worked really hard on their batting and their bowling but no one really worked on their fielding. I have seen a big change in the fielding ability of young Indian players," said Rhodes while speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda at the launch of StarPick Fantasy in Bengaluru.
There were a few players in the franchise who were known to leak runs in the field due to their sloppiness. Rhodes took a few of these players under his wing and worked hard with them and transformed them. This was seen in Munaf Patel, who was a completely different fielder post the 2011 World Cup. He even ended up as the players with the most catches in the 2011 edition of the cash-rich tournament.
"Being the fielding coach, it's been easy for me, I have worked with some great players. Munaf Patel stands out I suppose (chuckles), with his one season for Mumbai Indians straight after the World Cup win in 2011. It was an interesting season for me, but what was amazing was that he took most catches in the team in that season.
Whenever the ball went up, it went to him. He was like a magnet. I must confess that I used to close my eyes when the ball went to him and then look and say, 'Oh Munaf great catch.' But, it was never a case of you have to be like Virat Kohli or Suresh Raina, it was a case of being the best Munaf Patel he could be. That was my goal. I wasn't going to change everybody and have 11 Rohit Sharma's," said Jonty.
An extremely humble sportsperson, Rhodes dismisses the "best ever fielder" tag by simply saying that there was no other fielder during his playing days. What he means by this is that fielding was not taken as seriously back in the 1990s as it is today. While this is true, it does not undermine Rhodes' fielding ability.
He was a live wire in the field and was an inspiration to every cricketer back then. He transformed this aspect of the game and was the one responsible for bringing in the much-needed change in the game with respect to the importance given to fielding.
"Fielding has become so important. If you think of T20 cricket and most of the matches come down to the last over or the last ball. We won the final by 1 run last year. Pune needed four off the last ball and three to tie and they only got two. As a fielding coach, all I'm asking is that each player saves one run.
That becomes 11 runs a side. It's not just the boundary or sixes that wins you games. It's the singles and saving one, or stealing one when you're batting. That is my plead to the players that they put in an effort. Dive at the boundary and if the batsman steals three runs, not a problem. It shouldn't go for a four. I hate to see players run 30 metres across the boundary and not save the ball. What's the point of running so far? At least, put a dive in," said Jonty.
"But as I said, ever since the start of my coaching career until the very end, there has been a such a change in the focus on fielding. It wasn't me trying to justify my position as a fielding coach, it was showing people that with small changes, you can make a big difference," he continued.
Over the past decade or so, we have seen a few cricketers break into a team mainly due to their fielding ability. This was something which nobody could have imagined in the 1990s and before that. Mohammed Kaif was a prime example of such a player.
His batting average wasn't too great, yet, he continued to be a part of the Indian set up for a long time due to his brilliance on the field. However, in today's modern game, it is important for players to be adept in all three departments, felt Rhodes.
"There's no one in the side just because of their fielding. If there's a choice in the selection between two players and one is a better fielder, he will surely get in. In T20 cricket, there is no place to hide. Maybe one player or two players max can get in just because of their fielding, but if there's more than that on the field, then you are at a disadvantage. As a fielding coach, you can get two players max but there is nobody now who can just be a batsman or a bowler, they all have to be an all-rounder of some sort," he said.
Too many catches to pick from
Jonathan Neil Rhodes made his debut for the South African cricket team back in 1990. He played a total of 52 Tests and 245 ODIs and boasted an average of 35 in both formats. He credits his brilliance in the field to the fact that he was extremely athletic in nature and enjoyed playing a variety of different sports apart from cricket, such as tennis, hockey, and athletics.
While he did light up the stage with a few brilliant performances with the bat, he will always be remembered for his fielding. He has taken a lot of fantastic catches in his career, some of them which seem too good to be true. When it comes to choosing the best catch of his career, he can't seem to pick just one.
"I don't have one favourite catch. There are two instances I always remember. One of them is Sachin Tendulkar, because every time I come to India, the Indian guys tell me that the ball bounced and he was not out," he laughed.
"The second one was the Brabourne Stadium against West Indies, and I took five catches in that game. As a fielder, it was a world record, and two of them were one-hand diving catches, two of them were pretty straightforward, and it was actually the fifth catch. On a day which people say I won the match because of my fielding, they forget that I contributed 40 runs with the bat in a low-scoring game. That is one day in the field I remember as an entirety, from a catch point of view, I don't have memories of just one particular catch," concluded Jonty.