On one sunny afternoon 26 years ago, a golden haired, lean fielder rewrote the fielding manuals with a stunning piece of fielding that would go down into the history books as the single most influential moment involving a fielder in cricket. Jonty Rhodes, the man in discussion, ran in from backward point as Inzamam-ul-Haq pondered mid-pitch whether to return to the crease or keep running. He eventually tried to come back but fruitlessly as Rhodes ran in from point, crash-landed on the stumps with the ball in his hand and caught Inzamam short.
To state that Rhodes became an overnight poster boy for South African cricket returning from Apartheid would be putting it lightly. Batsmen were taken aback by the fervent pace of South Africa's fielders and were caught in two minds.
Most think South Africa had set the benchmark of fielding in the 1992 World Cup event when it became quite popular thanks to Rhodes’ iconic run-out. In reality, though, the standards had been set way back in 1963 when a Trevor Goddard-led South African unit, comprising of a livewire in the field in Colin Bland, visited Australia with calls for the tour to be cancelled — apparently because South Africa were not strong enough for Australia — growing across the country.
“We knew we were the underdogs and that they had the more talented team, but we also knew that that we could even the odds with our fielding. Do you know why? Because fielding is a skill; you can learn how to do it at a very high level,” Goddard had opined quite a few years later reminiscing about the tour which South Africa eventually drew.
Bland, in particular, would go on to be remembered as a stunning fielder.
To say South Africa were synonymous with fielding would be putting it aptly. But more than quarter of a century later, it is this very aspect of the game that is creating quite a few headaches for current Proteas coach, Ottis Gibson.
The Proteas, once renowned, adored and worshipped for their acrobatic fielding skills, are suddenly finding themselves second-rate to most other top-tier nations in terms of fielding.
To put things into perspective, South Africa dropped as many as eight catches in the recently concluded Test series against India, four more in the ODIs and two in the first T20I at Wanderers on Sunday. They put down Virat Kohli — an unforgivable sin — thrice in one Test (the one South Africa lost at Johannesburg), twice in the ODIs and once in the only T20I match played so far — a total of six dropped catches (we haven't even considered the missed run-out chances).
While there are spectacular fielders in Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Aiden Markram and David Miller, the remaining guys have been mostly mediocre in the field with several catches being put down on a regular basis.
Even the aforementioned five players have been guilty of shelling quite a few chances and all of this has meant that South Africa are no longer perceived as the superlative fielding unit they once were.
On Sunday, in the first T20 at Wanderers, Farhaan Behardien put down a sitter at long-on, the batsman being Kohli. A lofted on-drive went straight to the Titans player so much so that Kohli did not even bother running. But Behardien could not hold on as the Indian captain escaped for the sixth time on the tour.
Behardien, for one, has been a regular defaulter. In the 2015 World Cup semi-final — a match which highlighted the extent of South Africa's fielding woes — Behardien and Duminy made a mess of a Grant Elliott catch. The South African-born Kiwi would go on to seal the game with a stunning six off Dale Steyn in the final over to end Proteas’ World Cup campaign. It's been three years since that horror game, where they let off a few other chances in the field, and little has changed in South Africa's fielding.
In fact, the trend is not just restricted to international cricket. In the Ram Slam T20, South Africa's domestic 20-over competition, catches have been put down at the rate of knots. The appalling standards of fielding invited scything criticism from several quarters.
“There’s certainly been a drop in standards, even with the Proteas around. That’s rather sad because as South Africans we really do pride ourselves on our fielding. It’s just been a general thing around the franchise system at the moment that we seem to drop two-three catches in a game. We forget about those little things in the field,” Mangaliso Mosehle, the Lions franchise ’keeper and a capped South African player said of the fielding standards in the Ram Slam.
Gibson seems to understand that fielding is no longer South Africa's strength as his reign began with the appointment of Justin Ontong, former South African international, as fielding coach. Admitting the uncomfortable truth that they no longer excel in the field was a first step towards relearning the art of fielding. The worrying flurry of dropped catches and missed run-outs in the ongoing limited-overs series will pose several questions.
There is the occasional spark of brilliance like the Temba Bavuma run-out of David Warner or Markram's catch of Hardik Pandya but these have been overshadowed by several lamentable dropped chances. For now, it is evident that South Africa have a slew of batting and bowling concerns, but the elephant in the room is fielding and they need to work on it on a priority basis.