When he reached the top of his bowling mark, Allan Donald would turn around, narrow his eyes and throw a piercing glare at the batsman getting ready to face him. He would then bend forward just a tad and start running, from side-on, resembling a horse in stride. As the canter turned into a gallop, his face, smeared with zinc cream for protection against the sun and dramatic effect, would contort, accentuating the cheekbones on his lean face. As he arrived at the wicket, he would leap high, as if to surmount a hurdle in a dressage. Suspended in mid-air, time would pause, for a spell short enough not to break the delivery motion but long enough to remind the batsman, and us, of the show of hostility coming. Still with both feet off the ground, he would slip in a second look to the batsman, and cock his wrist. The feet would land with a thud and the arm would hurl a hard, round ball like a guided missile.
All this while, at point, a diminutive, fresh-faced man would be moving in stealthily, ready to pounce on anything that would come off the batsman’s accoutrements. When the bowler started his run-up, Jonty Rhodes would start walking briskly towards the wicket, head bent, hands and feet apart, eyes focused on the action in front of him, narrowing the angle for the batsman. When the ball reached the batsman, Rhodes would stand erect, his feet would do a quick shimmy, anticipate the direction and speed of the ball, and dart across the ground or take flight to get it into the safety of those seemingly large and extremely dependable palms.
Sometimes, batsmen would spoon up or slash hard at a Donald delivery in Rhodes’s direction, who would, more often than not, pluck it out for safe-keeping. Glee writ large on his face, Rhodes would make a dash towards Donald, who, following through in his delivery stride, would already be half-way to him. Arms held aloft, unbridled joy on their faces, they would converge and lock arms for a high-five and bodies for an unbashful embrace. As would the rest of the team.
It all happened in the space of seconds. It was a burst of action that was as exciting as any seen on the cricket field ever. It was the kind of celebration that had the power to make a non-partisan fan sit up and say, "this is a beautiful game". It sure was when Donald and Rhodes were on song.
As two of the most distinctive characters to have graced the sport bid adieu, they leave behind enduring memories and legacies that are distinctive yet strikingly similar. Both Donald and Rhodes were among the first flag-bearers for South African cricket after the country’s re-admittance into the international fold in 1991. Both were strong team men, who blossomed under the collective leadership of captain Hansie Cronje and coach Bob Woolmer. Both were members of four successive World Cup teams haunted by a condition called ‘heartbreak’. The despair of painful World Cup exits notwithstanding, Donald and Rhodes will be -- and should be -- remembered for more, such was the impact they made on modern cricket.
Donald snared 330 scalps in 72 Test matches (at an average of 22.25, including 20 five-wicket hauls) and 272 in 164 one-day internationals. He could have had more in Test cricket, probably a 100 more, but he was a victim of circumstances. The apartheid-enforced boycott on sporting contact with South Africa meant Donald’s formative years were spent in rebel tours and playing first-class cricket in South Africa and England.
When he eventually got a chance to play the big league in 1991, Donald was 25, and he had missed a good two to three years of top-flight cricket. Still, compared to fellow countrymen like Barry Richards and Greame Pollock, Donald would have a good, lengthy spell of international cricket.
Donald was a man of spells. Like most quickies, he would work his way into a spell. But unlike most quickies, who tend to flatten out after five or six overs, he could keep coming at batsmen for eight, nine, ten overs. Captains like to unleash their best bowler at the best bats the opposing side has to offer. Like a big game hunter, Donald relished this challenge. And such was his prowess, he delivered with remarkable consistency, in a manner quite like McGrath does today.
A run-down the list of Donald’s top dismissals makes for pretty impressive reading: Mike Atherton (11 times), Mark Waugh (10), Alec Stewart (9), Saeed Anwar (7), Brian Lara (6). Tendulkar, who has been scalped five times by Donald (the most number of times a bowler has claimed the champion batsman in Tests), averages 12 against Donald in Test cricket! The only batsman who has played against him for a sustained period of time and got some measure of him has been Steve Waugh, who averages a phenomenal 115 against Donald.
These numbers mask the drama that surrounded these confrontations, as they were some of those rare moments when in a team sport like cricket, individuals went head-on and played to sub-plots that lived up to their billing. They hide many a memorable battle that Donald waged in Test cricket, of which, he won some and lost some.
He bowled some torrid spells to the Waugh brothers (like Sydney 1998). For some reason, he seemed to reserve his best for Michael Atherton, the mainstay of the English batting for most of the nineties. Of the 32 times Atherton was dismissed against South Africa, Donald accounted for 11.
The most memorable of these duels was the fourth Test of the 1998 series played at Trent Bridge. Chasing 247 for victory, which would level the series, England lost opener Mark Butcher with the score on 40 during the last session of the fourth day’s play. As Nasser Hussain joined Atherton, a fired-up Donald started to crank it up.
Coming round the wicket, he peppered Atherton with fast, short balls. One nicked the glove, but wasn’t given. It enraged Donald, who started bowling quicker and threw in some verbals for good measure. Another nick of Hussain was spilled by Boucher. It further enraged Donald. During a hostile spell of nine overs, of sustained swing and seam bowling, he beat the bat countless times. Several times the ball hissed past Atherton’s face, who continued to sport his trademark wry grin, or cannoned into his body. Atherton withstood the assault, survived the day, sealed the match the next day, and England went on to win the series 2-1.
It was another heartbreaking interlude for South Africa, which has otherwise steadily marched to the top echelons of world cricket. And one of the reasons for that forward march was Jonty Rhodes, with his spectacular fielding, nifty batting and peppy presence.
Rhodes, the proverbial jack-in-the-box, redefined the art of fielding, and made it into the art form that it today. He was, and probably still is, the only player in the world who could draw fans on the strength of the beauty and artistry of his fielding alone. A banner that often made its appearance in grounds across the world summed it up: "Water covers 70 per cent of the earth, Jonty covers the rest." Countless times he proved why it wasn’t an exaggeration, with near-impossible run saves and catches.
Much was made of the South Africans when they travelled Down Under for the 1992 World Cup. In a team still finding its feet in the international arena, a lot of attention centred around two men in particular, for the reputation they were said to be tugging along: Donald, for his express pace, and Rhodes, because word was that he was the best fielder in the business. Rhodes imprinted himself in the minds of the cricketing public with that swooping, now immortalised, run out of a lumbering Inzamam.
About a year later, in India, he would win a one-day match with his fielding alone. Playing against the West Indies in the Hero Cup at the Brabourne Stadium, the last time an international match would be played here, Rhodes snared five catches, including three half-chances, absolute stunners. Such was the manner in which he had managed to endear himself to the crowd that mid-way through that performance, they were chanting his name. How common is that?
Rhodes charm lay as much in what he did as in the way he did it. He was all leaps and lunges, arcs and angles, athleticism and anticipation, guts and glory, fun and frolic. He would pull off the most daring of stops with nay a fuss. With the ball in his grasp, nonchalantly, he would get up, wipe of the specks of dirt on his flannels and shirt, sport a chuckle, adjust his cap, exchange a word or two with his mates, and go back to his original position -- buzzing to do it all over again.
He was the archetypal hard-working cricketer, personifying a strong work ethic, playing hard but fair, always game for a contest.
Rhodes embarrassed countless batsmen on their abilities to judge a run. He also foxed countless fielders with his ability to judge a run, and sneak out an extra run where most others wouldn’t have found one. Not the most attractive batsman, Rhodes could still be extremely effective in one-dayers with his unorthodox style of batting, which was based on deft nudges and countless sweep shots, and aggressive running between the wickets. Rhodes played 245 one-dayers, scoring 5,935 runs at an average of 35 and taking 105 catches.
For the pleasure and entertainment they brought to cricket fans around the world, it is indeed ironical that Donald and Rhodes should sign-off not with a bang, but with a whimper. Quite like their team. The injury to Rhodes and the axing of Donald from the playing 11 was tragic, more so given the enormity of the occasion, what with South Africa being the hosts and this being the chosen swansong of these two fine players. Would it have been a different ending for South Africa had Rhodes been fit and Donald on song? Perhaps.
Already, people have started writing the obituary of South African cricket. Question marks have been raised over the predictable style of Shaun Pollock’s captaincy, rightly so. Question marks have also been raised over the ability of players like Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher, wrongly so.
Perhaps, it’s a sign of the times, a by-product of the ball-by-ball coverage, which results in every distinct performance, good or bad, shaping a long-term opinion. So, by that yardstick, James Anderson and Ashish Nehra become pacemen of the highest calibre after one match-winning haul, and South Africa the spent force of world cricket.It’s a view shorn of perspective.
Sure, South Africa disappointed by not playing to their potential, but neither did they play as badly as is made out. They let matches slip from their grasp, not once but thrice. Ramnaresh Sarwan and Ricardo Powell pounded Pollock in the death overs, and turned 250 into 278; Boucher floored Stephen Fleming, who went on to play the innings of his life; the Proteas bungled in their reading of the Duckworth-Lewis system and ended up a run short. Small moments made the difference, and each time the South Africans drew the short straw.
It’s hard to forget the forlorn faces in that dressing room on that fateful rainy night. It’s hard not to feel for them, especially Donald, who a year ago had limped off with a torn hamstring in what would be his final Test appearance.
A few days later, as New Zealand were chasing 252 against Zimbabwe in Bloemfontein, Donald convened a press conference in the stadium premises to announce his retirement. The conference was being telecast on a big screen outside the stadium, and a small crowd gathered to watch. "I would like to be remembered as someone who gave his all. I was very passionate about the badge and the country and about every team I've played for," he told reporters present at the news conference.
As Donald’s last words rang out, people watching outside on the big screen stood up and applauded. It was a fitting tribute to a great player. Allan Donald and Jonty Rhodes, take a bow.
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