A blind love for cricket

Visually impaired commentator Dean du Plessis talks about how he fell for the game, his phone conversations with Dave Houghton, and life behind the microphone

Dean du Plessis
Visually impaired commentator Dean du Plessis behind the microphone

Du Plessis is able judge where the ball was hit by using the sounds of the contact between bat and ball, and the calls of the batsmen, the fielders and the crowd  •  Dean du Plessis collection

The year was 1991 and I was just another self-conscious teenager. Skinny. Pimples. Railroad tracks across my teeth. Although I was a blind boy attending a blind school, there were some partially sighted girls and word was that they were pretty.
Ensconced in my bedroom at boarding school in Worcester, South Africa, I scanned through the radio stations, looking for something to occupy my mind. Suddenly my ears were assaulted by a cacophony of sounds. South Africa were playing an ODI in India after being readmitted to international cricket.
I had heard the names of some of the South Africans - Kepler Wessels, Allan Donald, Jimmy Cook. But I didn't even know what a six was. Although my older brother Gary was a good cricketer back home in Zimbabwe, and I had heard people talking about the game, it didn't really mean anything to me. How could I picture it when I had never seen it?
A week later, I was back home for the holidays. Gary and my parents picked me up from the airport. The whole way home from Harare to Kadoma, a two-hour journey, I asked them questions about the game. My dad and Gary were bewildered as to where this interest in cricket had come from, but they supplied the answers that became the building blocks of my passion. I started soaking up facts and names like a sponge, listening intently to debates about the differing merits of Donald and Eddo Brandes.
By the end of the holidays I had a firm grasp on the game, and my excitement was peaking because I knew there would be commentary of Currie Cup matches on the radio when I got back to South Africa.
The following year the World Cup came around, and Zimbabwe beat England, with Brandes bowling our old export Graeme Hick for a duck. I was totally hooked.
When Zimbabwe were suddenly given Test status later that year, and lined up a Test against India, I figured there was only one way that I would be able to follow it. For weeks before the game, I saved my pocket money and converted it into coins. I knew the telephone number for the call box at the Red Lion, a pub at Harare Sports Club, and when the Test got underway, I started calling it to find out the score. Sometimes someone would answer, but they weren't always that friendly.
In the end I reverted to calling Radio One in Zimbabwe, where people were friendly but didn't necessarily know what was going on. "Maybe you can make sense of this," they would say. "It says two-seven-five divided by four." Eventually they knew when it was me calling, because they could hear the coins dropping into the pay phone's coin box as the call went through. "Yes, is that the guy calling from South Africa?" they would ask.
Soon cricket became an obsession. I managed to obtain Dave Houghton's home number and started calling him to talk about the game for as long as my allowance would hold out. One day as we were chatting, he heard the "beep beep beep" that warns you the call is about to be dropped because the money has run out. "Quickly," he said, "what's your number?" He just managed to jot it down in time and then called me back.
The following Sunday, Old Hararians played Alexandra Sports Club, and afterwards everyone was having a beer in the bar. Davie mentioned to my brother what a pleasure it had been talking to me. Gary went home and told my parents, and soon my dad was asking me why I was spending money that was meant for toothpaste and deodorant on phone calls to Houghton. I told him that Davie had called me back, but that just got me into more trouble.
I also used to call Eddo, although he never called me back. And at one stage Grant Flower and Alistair Campbell were sharing a flat in town, and I got their number. They were pretty happy to talk, but Houghton is the only person I've met whose appetite for discussing cricket exceeded my own. Many years later, after I had become a commentator, the two of us were driving from Harare to Bulawayo for a cricket match. The only break from cricket chatter on the five-hour journey was when we passed through Kadoma, and he said, "Gee, I'm a bit thirsty", and stopped for a drink.
My commentary career came about almost by accident. I had finished school and was back in Zimbabwe in 1999, working on the switchboard for an irrigation company, when Sri Lanka came to visit. I met Ravi Shastri, who was there as a neutral commentator, and was allowed to sit in the commentary box so long as I promised not to make a sound. Eventually some of the commentators started chatting to me and asking for my opinions.
Two years later India were back in Zimbabwe, and Shastri interviewed me during one of the tea breaks. Afterwards I was loitering around the press box when I heard a voice that I recognised from my school days in South Africa. It was Neil Manthorp, and I introduced myself. He was doing radio commentary for Cricinfo on the game and asked if I would join him. He ran it by his boss in London, who told him to keep it to 15 minutes. But as it went on, the editor emailed to tell Neil to keep me on for the rest of the slot, and then for the series.
My television debut came in 2003 when Mike Haysman persuaded the director to get me on during the second one-day international against West Indies in Bulawayo. Zimbabwe won the game, with Heath Streak and Mark Vermeulen taking them to a six-wicket victory, and the celebrations were extra sweet that night.
I was born with tumours behind both retinas, so my eyesight was destroyed before birth. The doctors told my parents that I had three to five months to live. I had my left eye removed when I was three months old, and my right eye came out in 2001, leaving me with two glass eyes.
This came in handy during an encounter with Darrell Hair during England's tour to Zimbabwe in 2004. We had briefly met in Harare, and in Bulawayo we got chatting some more. Zimbabwe had been on the receiving end of several bad decisions from him, so I said, "Darrell, I've got something I'd like to give you to help you out." I took out my right eye and put it in his hand. He went very quiet, then apparently he glowered at me, and then started to smile. Eventually he put his head back and bellowed with laughter. Eventually I had to remind him to please give me my eye back.
As remarkable as my story is, I know there are things that only a sighted commentator can do. For example, I can't analyse the field placements and make suggestions of how they could be changed. But I still feel I have a lot to offer.
When I'm wired into the stump microphone, I can generally make out who is bowling from listening to the way that they land and how they grunt, and from that point there are many giveaways as to what has happened. The length of time between the sound of the ball pitching and hitting the bat, the shuffle of the batsman's feet, and the type of noise that emanates from the bat striking the ball, all give me an idea of what shot has been played. Then the different calls of various batsmen, and the shouts of the fielders or the sound of the crowd, suggest whether the ball has pierced the field and how far it may have gone. So I can follow the game carefully, and along with the facts, figures, scorecards and conversations that I've stored in my mind over the years, I can perform a role as an analyst.
To date, the only places I've travelled for cricket are South Africa and Bangladesh. Opportunities have been a bit short lately, and things in Zimbabwe are not easy. But one day I hope to get out there and see the world.

As told to Tristan Holme, a freelance cricket writer who covers the game in South Africa and Zimbabwe