A superstar in his own right

S. DINAKAR

IT'S over in a blink when Jonty Rhodes swoops. The fastest draw in cricket.

N. SRIDHARAN

With boundless energy, stunning speed and lightning reflexes, the South African is an Original alright. In the realm of instant cricket, he rules supreme.

Those stunning catches and direct hits have ruthlessly cut short promising innings, not to forget the countless daring stops at point that have often separated heady wins from narrow defeats.

Rhodes is a superstar and an entertainer par excellence. His searing intensity on the field is accompanied by a friendly smile and the man can so effortlessly cut across barriers.

And even with the years rolling by - he is 32 now - Rhodes appears only swifter. Yes, the cat is still on the prowl.

His flight to fame, in the 1992 World Cup, was breathtaking. Rhodes was airborne and in full stretch when he terminated Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Haq. But then, he can defy gravity so easily.

Yet, the sheer brilliance of his fielding often clouds his value with the willow. In crisis, he thrives.

Rhodes is not gifted, but a born fighter. Even a casual glance at his career statistics would confirm this.

The South African has 5212 runs from 220 ODIs at 34.28 with a strike rate of 79.25. These are, in fact, outstanding figures for a batsman walking in at No. 5 or 6.

It goes without saying that things are loaded in favour of the top three in limited overs cricket. Theoretically, they can consume a majority of the overs, and have an opportunity to pace their innings, run up huge individual scores.

It's very different with the later batsmen, who hardly get time to settle. The pressure is on, the overs remaining aren't too many, and the runs have to be made straightaway.

In such a scenario, the chances of compiling a big innings are remote, unless there is an early collapse. This is precisely the reason, why statistics in ODIs can be so deceptive.

Yet, Rhodes' figures are very creditable. In fact, he's a quintessential ODI batsman, with the ability to pinch singles and twos at will. The man from Natal scampers like a hare between the wickets, guiding the ball into the empty spaces and taking off.

And he can be a dangerous striker of the ball, especially on the on-side, with his favourite sweep and pull shots. In the climactic phase, he innovates and creates.

Rhodes' hand-eye coordination compensates for slight shortcomings in technique, and his value to this South African side is immense. In other words, he breathes defiance.

Rhodes seldom allows himself to be bogged down by the pressure, and possesses a mind that is ticking even when the heat is on. Soon follow the nudges and the pushes and the enemy is rattled.

When Rhodes joined the South African side for the Victoria Bitter ODI triangular series, the Proteas must have been down on morale following a drubbing at the hands of Australia in the Test series. His bubbly exterior would for sure have lifted the spirits.

Shaun Pollock's men rose from the ashes to triumph and Rhodes was in the thick of things. Being brilliant on the field and producing a string of vital innings.

None more crucial than his unbeaten 135-ball 107 not out against New Zealand in Perth, after South Africa had struggled at 35 for four in an important qualification game.

Rhodes displayed maturity in a demanding situation, rotating the strike and stringing together partnerships with Mark Boucher and skipper Shaun Pollock, who cut loose towards the end.

Along the way, Rhodes reached his second ODI century, uncorking a few stinging blows with the willow himself. The Proteas eventually won the duel with a bonus point to ensure themselves a place in the final.

And then came Rhodes' unbeaten 61 in the second and decisive final against the New Zealanders at Sydney. The triumph was complete for South Africa and Rhodes.

In a South African line-up, lacking in experience, with the disgraced Hansie Cronje's departure and the drifting away of the enigmatic Darryl Cullinan, Rhodes has a significant part to perform as the link between the brittle middle and the strong lower order.

These days he confines himself only to the ODIs, spending more time with his family and attending to niggling injuries, a legacy of his diving saves on the field. The Proteas still need his services in Tests.

Rhodes made his Test debut against the Indians at Durban, 1992, and it was a long ride for this man from Natal. His record is respectable too - 2532 runs from 52 matches at 35.55 (three hundreds and 17 fifties).

He has countered the Indian spinners better than several of his team-mates, using the sweep shot effectively to prevent them from operating to a line. Being a busy batsman, Rhodes is positive in his approach and seldom allows the bowlers to dominate.

Rhodes has had his share of moments in Test cricket, yet he might cherish the 1998 series in Old Blighty the most. On a comeback trail, he batted quite delightfully, and for once, his straight-driving was immaculate.

He, for sure, would still command a slot in the Test side. There is a vacuum in the middle-order after the top three - the tenacious Gary Kirsten, the strokeful Herschellle Gibbs and the solid Jacques Kallis. And the experience and character of Rhodes, his rather unique methods of unsettling the bowlers, and rally with the lower order were sorely missed during the Test series in Australia.

However, Rhodes, forever a team-man, has made up his mind. It's 'no' to Tests, for he cannot give that form of the game, his hundred per cent.

He continues to dazzle in the ODI arena though. Perhaps, only Australia's Ricky Ponting, the Tasmanian Devil, comes anywhere close to Rhodes on the field. In the arc between cover and point, Rhodes remains the king - he is now just three short of a phenomenal 100 catches in ODIs.

Off the field, Rhodes is the unassuming sort, who loves children, and has done more than his bit for charity causes. The popular South African with a million dollar smile has indicated that he would bid adieu after the World Cup 2003 at home. Well, it might never quite be the same again without Jonty Rhodes - a cricketer like no other. An Original.