'Jonty Rhodes: not just a fielder'
If there was a cricketer you couldn't grudge fortune smiling on, it had to be Jonty Rhodes. With his combination of constant optimism and boyish charm, Rhodes was impossible not to like, but in June 1998, England had four reasons to feel differently. That's the number of times Rhodes should have been out, when instead he went on to score a match-winning century at Lord's, in difficult conditions.
Under cloudy skies, Dominic Cork engineered a South African slump and Rhodes walked out to bat at 46 for 4. "When I joined Hansie [Cronje] at the crease, the ball was swinging and Cork and Angus Fraser could exploit those conditions," Rhodes remembered. "Hansie said the only way we could get ahead was to counterattack, because we are going to get an unplayable delivery sooner or later."
Their aggressive approach almost backfired immediately. Rhodes flashed hard in Dean Headley's first over and the edge carried to slip, where Michael Atherton put it down. In Headley's next over, Rhodes took him on again and Atherton held on, but it was a no-ball. Those two chances seem to throw the England's bowlers off kilter and they lost their discipline. The Independent wrote that Headley offered Rhodes "ample width to feed his whirring bat", as more than half of the first day's 135 runs came in boundaries.
"Even though the wicket was swinging, it was also a bit slower," Rhodes said. "And because I'm quite a short guy who pulls quite easily, that helped me. The lengths the England guys were bowling suited my style of play and I was able to pull and cut a lot of deliveries." By tea, Cronje and Rhodes felt they had done well to "stem the flow of wickets" and wanted to continue pushing forward.
The pair stayed together for a large part of the second day as well, eventually sharing in a stand of 184. "When Hansie departed, his message to me was to bat for as long as possible. We thought anything above 300 was going to be a good first-innings score." Rhodes' 43-run stand with Shaun Pollock took South Africa to the brink of that total. More memorable was Rhodes' own battle through the 90s.
He was nearly run out on 93, and on 95 he should have been out again on Headley's lbw appeal. "It hit front pad and then the back pad. The umpire said he heard two noises, so he must have thought it was bat-pad and I was given not-out. I was almost prepared to walk, it was so plumb."
He was almost made to on the next ball. "Headley was angry and he bowled me a bumper, which hit me on the back of the head," Rhodes said. "If anything, it allowed me to relax a bit. I had been in the 90s for a while, so it gave me a chance to sit down, take a breather and get through to the hundred."
The milestone came up in typical Rhodes fashion, with a scampered three. It represented a culmination of two years' hard work to return to the Test side. He had been dropped in November 1996, after six innings without a half-century and criticism over his lack of off-side play. He had to work on his technique while on the sidelines, a time in which he had the support of his captain.
"I vindicated Hansie's faith in me with that hundred," Rhodes said. "In the time I was out of the side, every time I scored runs for Natal, Hansie was the first guy who phoned me. He would say, 'You're not out of the picture, keep going, keep working hard, I know you'll be back.' So it was pretty sweet from that point of view."
After being recalled, Rhodes proved the point with 95 in the first Test, at Edgbaston, and felt more relaxed for the Lord's fixture. "With the situation and the conditions at Lord's there wasn't a lot of pressure on me," Rhodes said. "I was still nervous, though, but it was about being able to control it. Adrenaline can make you sharper but the key is not to let the adrenaline become fear. If you really are worried about getting dropped, and I was just before it happened to me, that fear becomes too much and inhibits your abilities. If you can harness that fear, it's awesome."
Even though Rhodes had to control his emotions and ride a choppy wave to get to his hundred, his celebrations were not emphatic. "It wasn't a case of my job had been done and I could get out of there." But there was something special to mark the occasion. "Either Allan Donald or Pat Symcox wrote on a piece of paper, 'Jonty Rhodes: not just a fielder,' and someone took a picture of it for me."
Part of the reason Rhodes was subdued in his celebration was because he knew there was still a Test to win. South Africa bowled England out cheaply, made them follow-on and went on to win by ten wickets. "The way that the bowlers responded just showed how tough the conditions were," Rhodes said. "It wasn't moving a lot off the wicket by the time England got to bat but it was still swinging."
The victory saw South Africa take a 1-0 lead in the series, but even that was not enough to get Rhodes too excited. He said he was "probably the only guy who didn't go up to the balcony" because of his experience on the 1994 tour, when South Africa won at Lord's but couldn't take the series. "Dr [Ali] Bacher was on the balcony then, with all the guys, and I was in the dressing room when he came into find me. Lord's was just full of South Africans and they asked me to come up," Rhodes remembered. "I said, 'Doc, we've only played one Test, there's still two to go.' It was the same in 1998. We had three Tests to go where we really had to knuckle down and if we had won the series, then I would have been the first guy on the balcony, waving the flag."
On this tour, South Africa will visit Lord's last. Rhodes won't be in England to witness any possible triumph. When he's not working with the Mumbai Indians in the IPL, he is enjoying leading a quiet non-cricketing life, but he still has thoughts about how the contest for the No. 1 spot will be decided. "What England have shown in the past - and we learnt from it in 1998 - was that if you score a hundred, it's not enough. Those guys were scoring 170 and double -hundreds, and now South Africa have players like AB de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, who get in and go the distance too. England also have those guys, so whoever can remove the top orders will win the series."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent