The image of Jonty Rhodes flying through the air to break the stumps of Inzamam-ul-Haq still lives on as one of the most fascinating memories of the cricket world. It made Rhodes a hero, a pin up boy of cricket, and redefined fielding forever. However, as

Arunabha Sengupta explains, if that did not come off, the story of Rhodes might have been very different. Success stories and tales of failure in sport are often separated by wafer thin lines.

The picture endures — as one of the most iconic images of cricket. The airborne fielder, horizontal to the last limb and joint, flying through the air, defying thought and gravity, breaking the three stumps. The moment is recounted hundreds of times, even today, 22 years down the line. What is not discussed is the alternative history of that moment — what might have been if the spectacular piece of fielding had not come off.

It was March 8, 1992. The venue was the Gabba, Brisbane. Andrew Hudson, Hansie Cronje and Brian McMillan had been sedate but solid. The conditions were not easy, but with the bowling attack at South Africa’s disposal, 212 would take some effort to overhaul.

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The Pakistani start was decent enough, but then the first two wickets fell at the same score. At 50, Aamer Sohail was bowled by Richard Snell and McMillan trapped Zahid Fazal leg before. Captain Imran Khan promoted himself in the order, joining young Inzamam-ul-Haq at the wicket. They took the score to 74 in the 22nd over when the skies opened up.

The downpour was heavy and long, and when play restarted, the bizarre rain rule had scooped out 14 of the remaining overs and just 18 of the required runs. In 36 overs, Pakistan now needed 194. That translated to 120 from just over 14.

The captain, however, believed. And the youngster had faith and audacious talent. The acceleration was brisk. The first nine overs after the interruption saw 61 scored, Inzamam racing to 48 from 43 balls.

And then came the defining moment. McMillan, nose covered in chapstick, sent down the delivery across the batsman. Inzamam heaved to the leg side. The bat swished in the air, the ball defied the willow and struck the pad. The bowler turned in an appeal without much hope or enthusiasm. The ball rolled towards the backward point. With the asking rate well over nine runs an over, Inzamam set off to steal a single. Yes, he was young and raw, playing in just his 12th match, and still contemplated such things.

Imran however was 39. And a much better judge of a run. He sent his rookie batsman back. The hulking youth stopped, swivelled and sprinted back. And from backward point streaked in Jonty Rhodes. He swooped down on the ball, thinking out his course of action faster than his incredible movements. The ball was in his hand, yet he did not throw it. Instead he threw himself, all the way, and the three stumps were uprooted with the desperate batsman five inches short of his ground.

A frozen moment in time, the instant when Rhodes became the poster boy of South Africa and the world, his boyish grin beamed around the planet, the art of fielding was redefined and rewritten. It lit up the tournament, sparked life into the television screens. “Jonty, will you marry me?” shouted the posters as the cricketers returned to the Jan Smuts Airport after the rain rule had cruelly ended their mission in the semi-final.

A landmark moment in cricket – in sports, in the history of the new South Africa.

However, what if Inzamam had stretched those extra few inches? He was actually still capable of it. What would have been the outcome?

Till then the consensus in South Africa was that Rhodes had been lucky to make the trip. His batting technique was suspect, his average mediocre. In 49 First-Class innings, he had managed only two hundreds and scored at an ordinary 32. In 33 List A innings, his record was even worse. Sure, he grinned a lot, but many of his fellow players thought it was unfair that he was in the team. It seemed odd that someone would be picked just for his fielding. After all, there was no dearth of outstanding fielders in the team.

Till that game, he had scored 61 runs in four innings at 15.25 and with a highest of 28.

In hindsight, we can of course say that the place of Rhodes could not be questioned. He was a once in a lifetime miracle. However, before the Inzamam run-out, the extent of his brilliance largely unknown.

Captain Kepler Wessels wanted Rhodes around. He would put him on one side, Cronje on the other, and batsmen could never relax. However, some in the team and more back in the provinces felt — according to South African cricket writer Edward Griffiths — ‘Rhodes was all teeth and extravagant grandstanding, that he did not have the talent to feed his (place), that he would soon be found out.’

And what if Inzamam had stretched? What if the decision, in those days just before the advent of the third umpire, had gone in favour of the batsman? Rhodes would have surely copped a lot of criticism for not throwing the ball. With his bat unproductive, he might have even lost his place in the side.

But, as it transpired, he came up smiling. Inzamam walked back, morose and crestfallen. South Africa won the match by 20 runs. The concept of a fielding all-rounder was born for the first time. A Protean team without Rhodes became unthinkable. And with time the batsman in him started to find ways and means of improvising and scoring much needed runs in demanding situations. The doubts were removed, the critics were silenced.

Jontymania found its way to posters on the walls, and also led to endorsement of a brand of trousers, a computer game, and a campaign to promote a wider understanding of epilepsy — a disease from which Rhodes himself suffered. In short, he was idolised across South Africa and the world. The mention of Jonty Rhodes brought back that image, the inspired leap, that flight through the air to break the wickets.

In sport, the difference between glory and disgrace can be wafer thin.

That is also underlined by the final result of that very same tournament. That defeat to South Africa was Pakistan’s second loss in a row. They had been beaten by India four days earlier. Just before that, they had been bowled out for 74 at Adelaide against England. Rain had come pelting down as England had progressed to 24 for one in eight overs in reply. The match had been abandoned.

If the weather had not intervened, the three consecutive losses would have been the end of the World Cup campaign for Imran’s men. However, in the next match at Perth they stopped Australia 48 runs short and never looked back. It was the legendary all-rounder who lifted the cup at Melbourne on March 25, 1992.

And again, it could have been very different but for the rains.

In sport, let me repeat, the difference between glory and disgrace can be wafer thin.


Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his 

>author site, his >cricket blogs and by following him on >Twitter. This article was first published in DNA)

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