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Jonty Rhodes: 'I can always coach somebody to catch. The difficulty is in getting them to the ball to catch it'

The former South Africa batsman and ace fielder looks ahead to his T10 coaching stint, and talks about the best fielders he's seen so far

Jonty Rhodes trains kids at the Mumbai Cricket Association ground at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai, October 16, 2011

Jonty Rhodes: "You can work on the technical skills, but it's the awareness, the anticipation, that's important [in fielding]"  •  Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

The full-length dive into the stumps to run out Inzamam-ul-Haq at the 1992 World Cup is one of cricket's most iconic images. The man in that picture, Jonty Rhodes, is pushing 52 but looks no older than 25. Fitness is a big part of his life, adventure even bigger. It's this streak that has now taken him to Sweden, where he's coaching a team of committed amateurs looking to pose a serious challenge at the Associate level. Rhodes is also a part of the IPL with the Kings XI Punjab, and will be seen in the upcoming T10 League as the head coach of the Pune Devils.
In this chat, Rhodes talks about modern fielding, coaching below the elite level, and whether he has any World Cup regrets.
You've had a busy post-retirement life. Fielding coach, head coach, motivational speaker, bank officer, commentator. Is there a box you are yet to tick?
I retired in 2003 and immediately started working with Standard Bank as a sponsorship manager. I didn't really get back into cricket for six years. I retired thrice, which is crazy (laughs), but I could never leave it because this is a game I'm so passionate about.
Initially, I thought I'd walk away from cricket completely, until the IPL came along. I started with Mumbai Indians in 2009 as fielding coach - did it for nine seasons. After that, a two-year break helped me, from a journey point of view. I spent a lot of time developing the game at the grassroot structures as opposed to working with high-performance players or teams. That was an eye-opener. I spent time in Nepal, Malawi, Zimbabwe, in different parts of South Africa - places with passion for the game but with limited facilities, yet it doesn't diminish people's love for what they do.
Hopefully 20 years later, I'm still throwing balls around, scoring, umpiring or doing something in cricket.
What are the challenges of coaching a small Associate member country like Sweden?
At Sweden, I'm not just the national coach, I've got to also look after the pathways from junior cricket to Under-19s to women's cricket because there are only four paid professionals at the Swedish Cricket Federation. I've got players from Sweden who originate from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India. There aren't too many locals, so that's something I'm looking to push for. If you can harness that diversity, it's a huge asset to have.
There's also a T10 gig coming up with the Pune Devils. How did that come about?
Interestingly, Sweden has a lot of T10 cricket. They don't have many facilities, but there are a lot of clubs who want to play on weekends. It's too drawn out to facilitate 50-over cricket. All the players registered with us are working professionals, so they only have the weekend off. Both T20 and T10 are a big part of the Swedish cricket make-up. I've got to get as much experience from this shortened version, even if it isn't from an ICC point of view, because Sweden isn't participating in a tournament currently.
I've worked as a sponsorship manager when we introduced the Pro-20 in South Africa in 2004. I've been a stakeholder in T20s for a long time, so I'm looking to try and see that adjustment is very quick in T10 as well. It's a different format. There are players who have more experience than I have [Pune's marquee signings include Thisara Perera and Mohammad Amir], so I'm also looking to learn from them.
What is the biggest attribute needed in a team environment today?
The ability to listen. As coaches, your first instinct is to feel the need to say something, but when you have so many experienced players in your line-up, you need something unique and powerful, because they have seen it all. On the field, you have no say when things unfold. Also, from the business point of view, there's lot of strategy and analysis that could work, but it's about the actual execution that's important. And that's done better by listening rather than telling them what to do. If you're listening, you're giving them a chance to work out what the best plan could be. It allows people to grow. It's an important attribute to any environment - T20, T10, even life.
Batsmen often have to change mindsets when they switch formats. Does it apply to fielding as well?
Yes, you talk about fielding in T20 cricket, but fielding is huge in Test cricket too. I still remember Ravindra Jadeja's one-handed catch at deep square leg in a Test in New Zealand [in Christchurch in March 2020]. Those sorts of efforts can change a Test, but yes, T20 has certainly highlighted the importance of fielding and its intensity. In the IPL, you saw some brilliant saves at the boundary, not just great catches. Everywhere you're looking to save a run. In a lot of games, it all comes down to the last over, last ball, so it's not about if the guys are doing it differently, I don't think so.
Over the years, have you seen a fundamental shift in how young Indian players approach fielding?
One hundred per cent, but it's more about the fitness levels. MS Dhoni started it in his quiet way. As captain, he was a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy with a lot of authority. Compare that to Virat Kohli. Heart on his sleeve, he's very determined in what he wants to change and what he thinks is important. You think of his fitness level and how it changed his game and his athletic ability. You've seen that with guys like Ambati Rayudu, Suresh Raina - players I'm a great fan of - because of the ability to move in the field and the contributions they make with the bat.
If you're setting standards in your fitness levels consistently, that's amazing. Because as a fielding coach, I can always coach somebody to catch the ball, but the difficulty is in getting somebody to the ball to catch it. If they don't have that ability and mobility, it's difficult. From what you've seen, the athletic ability has changed of all youngsters coming through.
Cricket is a game of habit. Too often, you'll have ten years of "this is how we field" and it's difficult to change that. You can bat for two hours, but in India in April-May during the IPL, there's no chance you can field for more than 20 minutes, so we work together in small groups: ten to 20 minutes of high-intensity fielding, 100%, get it right and move on. Players who spend lot of time bowling and batting, if you can improve their ability to move, that's a massive change in the right direction.
Talking of athletic ability, we've seen some incredible boundary catches in the IPL. What is the key to being a good boundary rider?
It's important to not take your eye off the ball. Whether you're batting or fielding, you still have to watch the ball. Awareness is the key. What I try and promote as fielding coach is the need for players to play different sport. Whether it's badminton, football - not seriously, just to get that lateral movement. As a field hockey player, there was a huge benefit to my fielding. It was a massive benefit to me [to be] a football player, because it gives you that peripheral vision and the awareness of space.
From a catching point of view, it's about getting back to the rope as quickly as possible and not looking at it. I was trying to get the guys to shuffle back to the boundary like they are stepping out when they are batting. You don't run forward or run backwards when you're stepping out to bat, you still come with a good shape. It will give you a good base to work from because if your momentum is taking you back towards the rope, as soon as you jump, you're going to jump outside the rope. Whereas if your feet are shuffling sideways, you can have the power to spring up and land at the same place.
Those sorts of things do have a technique to it. It's about doing it enough times so that it becomes a habit and the players become aware. You can work on the technical skills, but it's the awareness, the anticipation, that's important.
From memory, can you pick out some of the boundary catches that have stood out?
Hmm, not really. You think of the 2019 World Cup. Ben Stokes caught Andile Phehlukwayo at the boundary, but he got it wrong. He came in, one hand, leapt up and caught it. Adam Bacher caught Sachin Tendulkar one-handed in a Test in Cape Town when Tendulkar was just defying us. He got 100-odd, I think [169], and the only way we could get him out was through that incredible one-handed catch at the boundary over his head.
With regards to T20, there's been so much brilliance. What I'm loving is that for the first six years of the IPL, if you had a top-ten compilation [of the best boundary catches], it was only the international players in it. Two would be Indians. Now, you'd have at least seven Indians. That, for me, is way more exciting than one particular catch that stands out. It's just the awareness that these young kids coming through have and the work that they are putting in as fielders.
Who are the some of the best fielders you've seen?
Ricky Ponting was an incredible fielder. He shattered his ankle sliding into the advertising boards once. In Perth, there used to be a concrete wall as the boundary, as you saw in a lot of Australian grounds. Guys like myself and Ricky, who were committed in the field, had it tough diving around to save every run because we didn't have a cushion to slide over while trying to pull the ball back in. We either had a wall or picket fence. So Ricky was incredible. Also, the accuracy with which he hit the stumps was amazing.
Herschelle Gibbs - I spent a lot of my career playing with him, having him at cover and me at point was a lot of fun. The two of us terrorising the opposition batters was a lot of fun.
I've enjoyed watching Suresh Raina throughout his career. He was Mr IPL. Everyone spoke about his batting, never missing a game for so long. My impression of him was: here's a guy who is diving around, having grown up in India, which is an indication that he wasn't afraid. Him and AB de Villiers, in the modern day, I've enjoyed. It's not about the catches, it's about the anticipation - them putting pressure on the opposition and never taking the foot off the gas for the full 20 overs.
I have to ask you about your international career as we wrap up. Was there a hint of regret at not having won a World Cup despite having the teams to do so?
I played 11 years for South Africa. I played in four World Cups. My career spanned from the start of one edition to the end of another, and I never got to a final. Part of T10 is my focus on the process, less the outcome. As coach, it's important to allow players the freedom. In four attempts [with South Africa], we didn't win. If you tell me that I had a disappointing career, no. I don't have any regrets. Talking of South Africa being chokers at ICC events, having been a part of it, never once have we walked onto the field thinking, "We're going to win" or "Oh, we're going to choke." So from that point of view, I have no single regret.
I had an incredible opportunity to represent my country at a stage where three years before 1992, even three months before the World Cup, no one even thought we'd be going there. Having that larger picture of life has shaped me in my cricket. I don't have a regret. I'm just grateful. I didn't even have a country to play for six months before the World Cup. And when I came in, people went, "Who is this guy Jonty Rhodes?" Because my average in state cricket was really poor. I was a feisty young guy on the field, but it wasn't a big part of the game. Kepler Wessels was my captain. He'd played in Australia and knew how important it was. You couldn't hit the ball out of the ground. The boundaries were big. You needed speed on the outfield, and he chose Hansie Cronje and myself in the squad.
Not a single regret with regards to my cricket. No player envy either. How many cups you won doesn't define me as a player. Australia won three World Cups during my time, but it doesn't make my career any less of an incredible opportunity to do what I did to make a name for myself by playing a sport in the backyard with my brothers.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo