Cricket: Rhodes leads charge of new South Africa: Glenn Moore on one of the world's thrilling fielders, a leader in his sport and his society

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The Independent Online
WHEN South Africa's cricketers were hastily squeezed into the 1992 World Cup, there were mixed feelings. The country remained ruled by an undemocratically elected right-wing white government and many articles of apartheid were still on the statute book.

Though the ecstatic reception given by Calcutta a few months earlier had, as the former South African batsman Barry Richards said, sanitised the team, it was vital that they proved good ambassadors to avoid antagonising those critics, both within and without, who felt the speed of their rehabilitation smacked more of grubby commercialism than ideals. The dangers were underlined later in the year when rugby union supporters greeted the Springboks' return from isolation by singing the Afrikaner anthem Die Stem. Then their captain, Naas Botha, led a boorish tour group through France and England, alienating all they met.

Only now, after finding in Francois Pienaar an acceptable face, has South African rugby begun clawing back the lost ground but the sport remains tarnished by history and attitude.

Cricket, helped by its background as an English, not Afrikaner sport, is regarded as comparitively pure in spirit and motive.

Although in Kepler Wessels the current South African tourists have at the helm a toughened Afrikaner more interested in winning cricket matches than in being a political animal, the image of the side is shaped by its younger players: Hansie Cronje, the urbane and studious Afrikaner vice-captain; Andrew Hudson, the modest and gentlemanly opener; and most of all, the exuberant Jonty Rhodes. At 24, and he looks younger, Rhodes is the most recognised and popular cricketer in South Africa. Bubbly, polite, devout and modest, he is just the man a father would like to see his daughter bring home. Indeed his recent marriage probably upset as many prospective fathers-in-law as would-be brides.

While the worth of his batting - he averages more than 40 in Tests - has surprised and silenced his critics, it is his fielding that both established and maintains Rhodes' repute. Brilliant and eye-catching, it is good enough for him to be compared with Colin Bland, the great Rhodesian fielder of the Sixties, and to be chosen to perform the out-fielding section of the new MCC Masterclass coaching manual. In it he lays down a fielding philosophy very similar to Bland's; the desire to want every ball to come to you, to enjoy fielding and be inspired by crowds, and to attack the ball.

While Bland practised alone for hours throwing at three stumps in a hockey goal, Rhodes began his fielding in the passageway at home with his father, the cost being a number of windows and pictures.

Strong encouragement at school followed and by the time South Africa entered the World Cup, Rhodes, making his first trip outside the country, was recognised within it as its best fielder.

World recognition followed swiftly when he spectacularly ran out Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq, leaping full-length to flatten the wicket.

The sight of him leaping about getting his whites muddied has been a familiar one in South African internationals since even in the Masterclass video he is interviewed with grass stains on the knees.

While Bland's strength was direct hits, frequently gained after surprising batsmen with surreptitious movement in the field, Rhodes is unmissable - walking, almost jogging in, constantly chattering to bowlers and other fielders, racing from backward point to deep mid-on to field and generally acting as if he had a beehive in his jockstrap.

Unlike Bland, he does not view himself as an entertainer but says: 'I'm just out there to enjoy myself. If people find that entertaining then I'm lucky because it creates opportunities for me. I have never gone out thinking, 'who can I impress today', but it is nice to know people appreciate what I do.'

The opportunities include a number of endorsements - but not tobacco or alcohol - which have made him the highest grossing cricketer in South Africa, and the chance to influence people's attitudes in other areas. Rhodes suffers from mild reflex epilepsy, caused by his falling from a tree at the age of six, and he now leads a campaign to promote epilepsy awareness.

Rhodes' epilepsy, which can be brought on by a blow to the head, prevented him following his father into rugby and also denied him indulging a love of football (Manchester United). But cricket was OK if not entirely safe - his last scare was in late 1991 when an Allan Donald bouncer led to a night in hospital - and his ability to lead a normal life despite epilepsy has been the bulwark of the campaign.

'It was great to know that by being in the spotlight I could do something,' he said. 'I am in an advantaged position and through my faith I believe I am out there for a reason. The Lord is going to use me in some way and if I can help destroy some of the stigma around epilepsy, that is one way.'

Rhodes' public espousal of his faith prompts a mild uneasiness in a predominently secular society like Britain's but it sits more readily in South Africa. About 40 per cent of the country are churchgoers and Rhodes is one of six in the present squad who hold regular prayer meetings on tour.

'Having so many of us has helped. You go through some tough times emotionally on tour and my faith has grown since I have been in the team,' he adds.

So, too, has his awareness of the iniquities of the country he grew up in. Just as visiting countries like India has enabled him to appreciate the privileges of his upbringing, so have his coaching sessions in black townships shown him how those advantages were denied to so many South Africans.

'During the state of emergency (when Rhodes was in his mid- teens), you did not go into townships and there was nothing on television,' he says. 'You just assumed they were happy living in the townships. It is wonderful that people now know what it is like and things are changing.

'It is amazing how positive the blacks' attitude is. They have every reason to be bitter and full of hate but are not and their attitude has rubbed off on whites who were fearing the worst.

'People say it is great to be back and it is but what is great about it is that 29 years ago only white, English-speaking South Africans supported us, now the whole country does.'

(Photograph omitted)