'If you hit in the air against SA, expect to be caught'
When AB de Villiers soared into the Bangalore night to snuff out Praveen Kumar's innings for the Royal Challengers 10 days ago, he wasn't only making a seemingly impossible catch spectacularly possible. He was also continuing a tradition of South Africans daring to go where no other fielders, except those from Australia, have regularly gone before.
By any standard, de Villiers' effort shimmered with brilliance. Praveen pulled lustily at the first ball he faced, a short delivery from the Delhi Daredevils' Umesh Yadav, and sent it arcing towards the long-off boundary. De Villiers scrambled backward and launched his leap with perfect timing. He snared the wannabe six high above his head in his right hand and hung onto the ball as he crashed to earth a foot inside the rope.
"Awesome," was Jonty Rhodes' description of de Villiers' catch, and he should know. From 1992 to 2003, Rhodes dazzled opponents and delighted crowds with the kind of catching and fielding that would have won him star billing in PT Barnum's Big Top. Rhodes was the epitome of the gritty middle-order batsman, and a more treasured team man will never exist. But he will forever be remembered for diving headlong into the stumps to run out Inzamam-ul-Haq at the 1992 World Cup.
Click on the first mention of Rhodes' name in this story, and you will be taken to a profile page illustrated not with a photograph of him playing a fine stroke, but of him flying through the air with the greatest of ease to take another of those impossible catches.
This thread can be traced back more than 50 years, at least, in South Africa's cricket history. Before Rhodes, Peter Kirsten was South Africa's angel of death in the field. Before Kirsten, Colin Bland, "the Golden Eagle", preyed on hapless batsmen.
"Youngsters tend to look up to their cricketing idols, and in my case that was Colin Bland," Kirsten said. "Hopefully that means that Jonty was watching me!" Indeed, he was. "Peter Kirsten was my hero," Rhodes said, unprompted.
The modern mantle might just belong to Sybrand Engelbrecht, a 21-year-old blond ghost who haunted backward point with enthusiasm as memorable as his athleticism at the 2008 Under-19 World Cup. He took five catches, some of them positively Rhodesian, in the three matches he played, and added to his value by hurrying and harrying batsmen into and out of singles. If the ball was being hit somewhere he wasn't, he was in the captain's ear, nagging to be moved to the hot spot.
And Engelbrecht's hero? "Without a doubt, definitely Jonty. He's been my role model," he said.
But, according to Rhodes, South Africa's fielding prowess is more than the preserve of a few shining individuals. "We were untested as an international team when we went to the 1992 World Cup," Rhodes said. "But [former South Africa captain] Kepler [Wessels] told us there were two areas in which we could dominate: fitness and fielding.
"We had Fanie de Villiers out on the boundary and Brian McMillan and Kepler in the slips. They were all excellent fielders. Fielding was something we could compete at even without international experience." Eighteen years of international experience later that remains true: "You can judge a good fielding side by the fact that they don't have to hide anyone. That's the case with South Africa."
Rhodes thinks the reason for that goes down to grassroots level, and he says he has the evidence to back up his claim. "Our fields are just so good and so well-maintained. I wish I could show you the video clip of my son playing in his first outdoor cricket match. There he was, diving and sliding all over the place. And he was five years old!
"Fields in Australia are pretty much the same as they are in South Africa, and I think it's fair to say that those two countries have been at the forefront of fielding over the years."
In other countries, cricket and cricketers could be considered less fortunate. For instance, in India, where Rhodes is part of the Mumbai Indians' coaching staff in the IPL. "You just don't get much grass in this part of the world. I was talking to Mark Boucher and he said he can feel the strain on his knees even through his wicketkeeping pads. That's an indication of how hard the fields are here."
For Engelbrecht, practice makes perfect. "Fielding is about hard work and confidence, and catching hundreds of balls in training," he said. "People look at someone like Richard Branson and how he makes building a business empire look so easy. What they don't see is how much time and effort he has put in behind the scenes to make it look so easy."
Rhodes and Engelbrecht belong to a generation of cricketers who don't need to be convinced of the advantages to be had from superior conditioning and a more intense focus on skills training. Not so Kirsten, who began to make his way in the game when cricket was still something of an amateur pursuit in South Africa. However, early in his career he encountered the forward-thinking Eddie Barlow, who was among the earliest believers in fitness and better training methods for cricketers.
Kirsten also suffered a serious knee injury that required long, lonely hours of rehabilitation. "I used to train hard individually in the 70s and 80s. That made the difference for me," Kirsten said.
"South Africans are naturally athletic people, and since the 90s fitness levels have improved. These days there is also plenty of sports science around for us to make use of."
But certain aspects of fielding would seem to remain in the realm of instinct. "Anticipation is very important, as is peripheral vision," Kirsten said. "It's vital to be able to read the batsman. I suppose there are some things you just can't coach." Kirsten held more than his share of unforgettable catches, but his trademark as a fielder was the fluid pick-up-and-throw from the covers that cut down many batsmen short of their ground. He was mercury in motion, and just as deadly. Who knows how many run-outs he would have effected had his career fallen more squarely into the age of electronic umpiring?
Bland bestrode the covers from the 1950s to the 70s, a lean, grim reaper. He threw down the stumps almost at will, his reward for endless hours spent in solitary practice sessions, and intimidated batsmen with his sheer presence. "He was brilliant in certain positions," remembered Trevor Goddard, Bland's captain in 12 of the 21 Tests he played in the 1960s. "We also fielded him at mid-on a lot of the time, and he was so accurate when throwing at the stumps. When he was patrolling the boundary, he would send these underarm throws whistling in. The batsmen wouldn't dare take two to him."
Goddard recalled the bleak observation made by former England captain Peter May after a 1956-57 rubber in which he was caught seven times in 10 innings and recorded his lowest Test series average, 15.30. "He said that if you hit the ball in the air when you were playing against South Africa, you should expect to be caught."
Praveen Kumar won't argue with that.
Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa