Former South African cricketer and brand ambassador for surfing in India, Jonty Rhodes talks to Priyadarshini Paitandy about his new sport and working with the Mumbai Indians

People gaze at the sea excitedly like they have just spotted the Titanic. “There! That’s him, can you see,” they exclaim pointing to a motley bunch of divers who from the coast look like corks bobbing about in the ocean. One of them — the one with a mop of brown hair — attracts a great deal of attention. And as he walks out of the sea holding his surf board, with a swagger much like James Bond, spectators rush to him screaming “Jonty Jonty.”

Just the previous night he was in Jaipur cheering the Mumbai Indians as they celebrated their win and in less than 24 hours he was in Kovalam, sleep-deprived but fervently riding the waves. “I’ll do anything for a surf,” smiles Jonty, the brand ambassador for surfing in India.

From diving mid-air on cricket field to balancing antics mid-sea, how did the transition happen? “I retired from international cricket in 2003, and started surfing in 2004 to keep fit. I am lazy, can’t do stuff in the gym,” he says.

“Another reason why I surf is to overcome my fear of sharks.” And luckily he hasn’t encountered any so far. But during his initial tryst with surfing he did, however, break his neck while trying to lunge under a wave. That was hardly a deterrent to keep Jonty away from this adrenalin-pumping sport.

Surfing is popular in South Africa. “There is a long coastline and the water is chilly. I have to wear my wet suit and even then I feel cold. But in Kovalam it’s warm and comfortable.”

When Jonty is back home, he tries to fit in at least three to four surfing sessions a week. As the ambassador of the sport, he hopes it picks up in India, even though it’s difficult to find enough trainers. “Surfing requires perseverance. The hardest part is balancing on the board...your core muscles have to be strong,” says the 44-year-old. That probably explains why he’s still flab-free and fabulous.

As we speak a crowd gathers; more people want to get a glimpse of the former South African cricketer, whose fame still hasn't died down. He is perhaps most well-known for his phenomenal run out of Inzamam-ul-Haq in the 1992 World Cup. “Even now I am asked about it and people still want me to sign on those pictures,” he says modestly. That isn’t his most memorable moment on the field though. His world record of the five catches he took against the West Indies during the 1993 Hero Cup is what he cherishes the most.

Currently touring with the winners of the IPL 6, Mumbai Indians, as their fielding coach, what expert advice does he have for them? “I tell them all to save one run each. I am a 10-minute kind of guy. I don’t believe in long training sessions when it can be done quickly. I don’t break their fingers while training,” he laughs and adds, “I sure do not want to break Sachin Tendulkar’s fingers!” 

This CLT20 is the last time Tendulkar will be playing a T20 match, how different will things be after he retires? “Well he’s been around for more than 20 years...I hope the sun comes out the day after he retires,” he smiles.

Having travelled extensively across India for the IPL, Jonty says it’s a great experience. And a must-do on his list when he’s in Chennai is riding on the ECR early in the morning with the Madras Bulls Motorcycling Club. “But on the way back to the city the traffic gets difficult for an outsider like me,” he laughs. Meanwhile, children from Kovalam village cling to him and Jonty reciprocates with a wide grin. The gnarling traffic should hardly be a worry for someone who mingles and moves with ease through a mob of affectionate fans.