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Jonty's new role

A bundle of joy he was on the cricketing stage, an ocean of compassion he is off it, says S. DINAKAR.


Life has been a challenge for him.

THERE is more to Jonty Rhodes than acts of defying gravity on the cricket field. The person who revolutionised fielding has a heart that reaches out, a mind that cares, and a vision that stretches beyond the boundary.

A people's man

From fighting a winning battle against epilepsy, to raising funds for the needy, to putting a smile on the faces of countless children, this sunshine man, who grew up in apartheid South Africa, belongs to the multitude, irrespective of the cast or creed, colour or race.

Glimpse at his eyes and they laugh back at you. The South African, whose boundless spirit illuminated the venues around the world, is very much a people's man; someone who can cut across the barriers of nationhood.

The 35-year-old Rhodes, who drifted into the cricketing sunset after his last waltz in the English county circuit last season, was in India recently as the brand ambassador for the eco-safari operator, Conservation Corporation Africa, when he dwelt on his persona, in an interview to The Hindu in Chennai.

Life has indeed been an expedition for Rhodes, and while he can sprint like the leopard — he posed with a radiant picture of this beautiful cat for the photographers — he is the kind who will not hurt a fly.

Battle with epilepsy

In the journey, he has learnt several lessons, the foremost among them being — "never give up". Cricket's fielding legend, the astonishing shot stopper, whose blond hair bobbed up each time he swooped on the ball, was diagnosed with epilepsy, when just six. "In 1975, there wasn't much known about epilepsy. Then, there was a stigma attached to people with it," he says.

He found an avenue to defeat epilepsy, and it was sports, his passion. "The only thing I couldn't do was to play rugby. I played most other games including hockey. I did not need too much medication. By the time I got to 21, I had got over it. The medication is now available for people with epilepsy. It cannot be cured overnight, but it can be controlled."

His cricketing days behind, Rhodes wants to make a difference to the lives of those around him. "You should not say that I am just one person and I will not be able to change anything, so what's the point in trying. Some people have got money, some have got time, some have got energy, and some have got kindness. It can all be put together to make this a better place for everyone to live in."

Rhodes has enjoyed immensely his visits to the City of Joy, and Mother Teresa has remained a source of much inspiration."The example she has set, it is not about religion. It is about caring for people. The concern that she showed ... you can talk the talk, but do you really walk the walk? She sacrificed so much of her life whenever she found there was a calling. She probably didn't feel there was a sacrifice involved. She was a real motivator. She gives you hope. It's certainly difficult out there. But if you can put the other people first, you certainly can contribute."

The tsunami tragedy, all the suffering and the pain, left him disturbed. Rhodes did take part in the three one-dayers in New Zealand to raise funds for the Sri Lankan relief fund. Again he is able to glean the bigger picture. "It's not just about rebuilding houses and roads. It is about rebuilding people's lives. That is going to take much longer."

On Hansie Cronje

He goes on: "The frightening thing was that there weren't too many visuals that came through on the first day. When the visuals started coming in, it was hard to bear. You had heard the news, you heard the casualty figures, and now you saw the trauma that the people went through. Regardless of your culture or the country you came from, it moved you. There has been so much destruction, there have been so many deaths that it will take everyone's combined effort for a long time to heal the wounds."

Rhodes has been through several testing periods in his life and one of them was when his good friend and captain for long, Hansie Cronje, confessed, after the match-fixing scandal broke out in 2000, to accepting money from the bookies to alter the course of some contests. "What he did was wrong. But I never made him feel that he was not my friend. That's what friends are for. Our wives are best friends. What Bertha (Cronje's wife) went through after Hansie's death (Cronje died in a plane crash in 2002) ... it was sad. The King Commission proceedings were televised live in South Africa and my wife and I, we couldn't watch it. To see the sadness in him, and how badly he felt for what he had done, we really couldn't watch it."

Apartheid, Gandhiji and Mandela

As Rhodes reveals, he had little idea about the cruelty being inflicted on the non-whites by the apartheid regime in South Africa, until he finally boarded an overseas-bound flight. "The frightening thing is, apartheid means living apart, we never saw the poverty, and if you don't see it, you actually are not aware of it. The State controlled the newspapers and the television and you never got to see the riots or the people who were discontent with their surroundings. You were ignorant. We had an African cleaning lady who came home three days a week, and I did not see too many blacks or coloured people. I had never travelled abroad until the World Cup in 1992, and it was only when I was out of South Africa did I realise that a race was being discriminated against because of its colour. I was 22 when I left for the World Cup. Until then I thought everything was fine. I also realised how wrong I had been."

It was only when the then cricket board chief in South Africa, Ali Bacher, took Rhodes to the townships after his return from the World Cup that he came to grips with reality. "I finally saw the truth in South Africa. Bacher wanted me to encourage the kids in the townships. I love children."

In India too he has witnessed the poverty. "You can drive down the road when you arrive from the airport at say 11 p.m. and you see entire families sleeping alongside the road. The poverty here is also because of the sheer number of people, that much is very evident."

Talking of India and South Africa, he comprehends the relevance of two of the foremost figures of peace, goodwill, and non-violence — Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. "When I was in Mumbai, I went to the house Gandhi lived in, and we could see history around us. Because he was a political activist, as a white South African you had a negative perception of him. But he was a great man with a great philosophy. If you are being true to yourself, you do not have to resort to violence. Violence shows that you do not have the mental capacity to speak to people on equal terms. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, they were so gracious."

He sheds further light on Mandela's significance to South Africa. "His role, while he was in prison, while he was a part of the African National Congress, and the part he played once he came out of prison after 27 years, bringing everyone together and bearing no grudges, it was extraordinary. If you look at Zimbabwe, and a bloody revolution ... Nelson Mandela prevented that in South Africa. There could have been so much bloodshed during the transition. Here was a man who had every reason to feel angry, resentful and bitter. And he just embraced everybody."

World Cup 1992

Rhodes remembers the World Cup of 1992, which had people of all colour rooting for the national team. The competition also showed him that sports could unite people. "When you play, it is quite difficult to get involved because you see only airports, hotels and the grounds. And you have a responsibility towards your team. Now, I can do a lot more."

Calling South Africa "a land of hope", Rhodes says, "Dreams certainly can come true now. Fifteen years ago, people of colour weren't allowed to vote. It's amazing to see the turnaround. I want to encourage the kids to dream big dreams. I hope I can inspire them to be the best they can be, regardless of the colour of their skin."

A bundle of joy Rhodes was on the cricketing stage, an ocean of compassion he is off it.

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