Couch Talk 144 (Play)
Guest: Dean du Plessis
Host: Subash Jayaraman
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Subash Jayaraman (SJ) – Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is Dean du Plessis who is a cricket commentator and journalist from Zimbabwe. He also happens to be visually impaired. He talks about how he got interested in cricket, and in commentary, and how he visualizes the game in his mind’s eye, the mechanics of it, and his hopes of being a regular on-air commentator amongst other things.
Welcome to the show Dean!
Dean du Plessis (DdP) – It’s a pleasure to be on the show, thanks very much for having me.
SJ – It is absolutely my pleasure. You are a cricket commentator and journalist, but you are also visually impaired from birth. For those that haven’t heard your story before, could you take us through it, about your origins?
DdP – Yes, certainly, absolutely. Well, I was born and bred in Zimbabwe, born in Harare, the capital city. Obviously, I was born blind. When I was born, I was born with tumors behind both my retinas, so I was only meant to live three to five months, but I’m 37-not-out at the moment and still hitting it as well as anybody. Obviously I’m very happy and grateful for that.
I basically attended all of my schooling down in South Africa, in a small town by the name of Worcester, which is give or take about 100 kilometers outside of Cape Town. Being down in South Africa is where I found my love for the game of cricket, which was back in 1991. Ironically it was actually when South Africa came back into the international scene. If you remember they had that little short tour of India where they played the three one-day internationals and were beaten 2-1, but it was a fantastic series. It was actually the third and final international, and I remember India batting first made 287 for 5, and if my memory serves me correctly there were hundreds from Navjot Sidhu and Sachin Tendulkar. I don’t think anyone expected South Africa to chase down such a big total. I mean, in those days in 1991 you never heard of such big totals, and secondly because South Africa in everyone’s opinion—although they had a very good side—didn’t have the nous and the skill to chase down a total, but that’s exactly what they did. And they chased it down for the loss of just two wickets. But what really got me captivated was I was listening to the radio, and when I tuned into this one particular radio station all I heard was just sound. This amazing sound emanating from my radio, and what it was, was 100,000 fanatical Indian supporters at Eden Gardens cheering on Sachin Tendulkar and Navjot Sidhu as they struck their centuries. And that was initially what got me captivated. And I knew nothing about the game, so then slowly but surely I got to understand what it meant when somebody hit a four, or when somebody hit a six.
SJ – How old were you when that match happened – The South Africa / India match at Eden Gardens, that got you hooked on to cricket, but wanting to be a commentator, how did you get from that, from never having actually watched or played cricket to actually wanting to get into that line of work?
DdP – Absolutely, and that’s a very good question. Well, I was 14 when I got hooked on cricket with that memorable game that took place. That’s what got me going. And if you remember not long afterwards it was the world cup in New Zealand and Australia and that just settled it because you remember Zimbabwe beating England narrowly by nine runs, and that was pretty special.
I started to basically fool around in school pretending to be a commentator, and it would always involve matches of Zimbabwe against South Africa. Obviously, me being the only Zimbabwean I got a lot of flak from the South Africans, because Zimbabwe were just beginning to find their way in international cricket, even though we had Andy Flower who was promising but not necessarily very good yet, and Dave Houghton who was getting to the end of his career, Eddo Brandes who was very quick in his day as a world class bowler but he was always breaking down, so basically my commentary would always go somewhere along the lines of, “In comes Allen Donald, past umpire Cyrill Mitchley, Houghton pulls him in front of square and it’ll go all the way! Six runs!” which of course was never going to happen.
Then what actually happened is I was in the middle of rehearsing for an exam, and I was either commentating on Eddo Brandes getting Adrian Kuiper or the late Hansie Cronje and I felt this very big heavy hand on my shoulder. As a joke our teacher and house father would never call me “du Plessi(s),” he always called me “du Plessis.” And he said “du Plessis, I want to see you in my office directly after dinner,” and I walked in there and he said to me, “If you ever, ever do that again during an exam I promise I will give you the hiding of your life, that is the first thing I want to tell you. Secondly, I think you should make this your career, you are a natural talent.” So it was wonderful getting a bit of advice from the big man. I can tell you that I had quite a few butterflies in my stomach at the time because he was a formidable man.
Commentating itself started in 2001. India and the West Indies were touring Zimbabwe in a triangular series and it was Zimbabwe who were up against the West Indies in the opening counter. I was wandering around the press box because a lot of the people in the media area knew of me as a cricket supporter and cricket follower, but not as a cricket commentator. So just walking around minding my own business, and I heard this voice commentating as if we were on radio! And I thought, “there’s no radio commentary here in Zimbabwe, there hasn’t been for a long long time, what’s going on?”
So I made my way to the back of the media center—and in those days it wasn’t the beautiful media center we have in Harare Sports Club now, it was a scaffolding that was put together and so we all had these very small boxes—and I heard the voice of Neil Manthorp commentating. And Neil Manthorp was commentating with a very well known journalist called Ashish. What happened was they were commentating on Cricinfo but as a radio broadcast just on the internet. Ravi Shastri had done an interview with me about ten days or so before so they both knew who I was straight away, but again just as a cricket supporter, not a commentator. Neil Manthorp said to me, “why don’t you come on air with us tomorrow? Come and commentate and have some fun with us.”
Understandably his boss was very nervous at first. You’ve got to take it from their point of view—you’ve got this blind weirdo walking around who has never “seen” a game of cricket, and the next thing he’s commentating. So initially they said, “Alright, fine, give him ten minutes and then pull the plug,” basically. But when it got to about five minutes into the ten minutes Neil Manthorp received an e-mail saying “keep him on, and furthermore make sure you keep him for the rest of the series.” That’s pretty much how it started! And if I may use the cliché, I’ve never looked back since then.
I’ve been fortunate enough to tour Bangladesh, which was absolutely unbelievable. I mean, walking through the streets of Dhaka, walking through the marketplaces and literally hundreds of people surrounding you and knowing who you are, wanting to talk cricket with you, it was unbelievable. It’s something that will stay with me until the day I die. That was five years ago and I can remember it like it happened yesterday.
SJ – To be a commentator, even a color commentator, you have to understand the fundamentals of the sport and the various things that happen. How did you learn those, and what was the influence of your late brother Gary, who played first class cricket, in your understanding of cricket and getting immersed into it?
DdP – I’m very happy to hear you mentioning Gary, because Gary was a massive influence. If he didn’t take me aside and teach me about the fundamentals of the game, I don’t think I would be here today. Well, I would be here today but I would be doing something totally different. Probably playing music on a radio station as opposed to talking about cricket. Pretty much all the credit goes to Gary for teaching me about the game and teaching me about the players.
We played a little bit of cricket at school, but it wasn’t at the level that blind players do today, you know today blind cricket is very popular in the world. The way we used to play cricket at school was we had a big basketball that we would put in a plastic bag, so when we rolled it the rustling sound of the basketball in the plastic bag would tell us the ball was coming. We had this bat, a big piece of wood that didn’t have any springs in it. You would basically swing for the fences and hope for the best. Invariably when the bat hit the ball it felt like you had dislocated both your shoulders because there was no spring retention in the bat, but good fun. That’s pretty much where I learned about where off side is, where on side is, and a lot of commentary as well.
We were fortunate in that particular time in South Africa that there was a lot of cricket commentary on radio, so there would be a lot of domestic cricket. In those days it was called the “Castle Cup.” First the “Currie Cup” and then the “Castle Cup” and so on and so forth. It was wonderful for us because there was ball-by-ball commentary on all the matches. Now, unfortunately, a lot of the cricket lovers don’t have that anymore. We were lucky that we could listen to all of that. So that’s where I learned a huge amount about the game, and that’s where I actually discovered that I could also do this.
Obviously playing the game you get to understand long off and long on and deep mid-wicket and you get to understand—even us as blind players—you know we had our strengths and weaknesses. My problem was I was hopeless against a slower ball. Pathetic! Bowl me a slow ball and you would get me out every single time. But bowl it quick and at my stumps and I’d probably whip you through mid-wicket for one if I was lucky. (Laughs) I wasn’t very good at the game. I was just a big noise maker who patrolled the boundary and made a lot of noise. As a cricketer I was hopeless. But I think my love of the game is what always got me picked to play on their team, because although I was hopeless at the game I could strategize and read the game pretty nicely, you know?
SJ – Absolutely fantastic. I want to know more about the mechanics of it. How is it that you visualize what you hear and then transform it into words for your audience to inform them of what is happening? What is it you imagine? How is it you visualize what you just heard? How does that work?
DdP – Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, I believe the brain is a lot more powerful, and a lot more intelligent, than we give it credit for. Sometimes, because I love something—I love cricket almost as much as I love my wife, and I like talking about it almost as much as I love my wife—I believe that there are a lot of things that happen in the subconscious. In other words, without you registering it, your mind begins to register the game of cricket. Obviously I’ve been following it very intensely for 23 years, I’ve been commentating on it for 13 years, writing about it since 2010—I’m still a new writer, still a puppy at writing, but I’m loving it though—anyway, I think I get to understand certain things without people explaining it to me. Now, this doesn’t make sense, and if you ask me how is that, or why is that, I’ll be very honest with you and straight up front with you and say I don’t know. But it’s something that happens in your brain, almost like things that you thought you heard when you were sleeping that happens in your subconscious. I believe that’s what happens to not only me, but every one of us with whatever it is that we’re doing. And it’s up to us to try and master it and figure out how we can put it into use.
Lots of times without a commentator telling me I know when a shot has been played straight down the ground. Not only because of the stump microphones. Yes, the stump microphones are important, without those I can’t do my job. But sometimes it’s just that little sixth sense that kicks in and tells you, “he’s going to play a straight drive,” and certain people I know that when they are going to play a cover drive, they want to make sure that they get right to the pitch of the ball when they play a shot, that little bit of trigger movement maybe, some people go back outside the leg stump, Heath Streak was one in particular, he made sure he gave himself room outside the leg stump. I don’t know why that was, I don’t know if it was because he was a big strong guy and he felt that he had to use that power to hit the ball through or over cover, whereas Mahela Jayawardane—I’m not saying that’s how it is, but I’m telling you the way I see it, if I may use that expression— Mahela Jayawardane and Sachin Tendulkar stand very still when they are playing cover drives, relying on timing and placement rather than how Heath Streak invariably relied on muscle and brawn. The likes of Tendulkar or Jayawardane who aren’t particularly big men, in my mind, rely on placement and timing and skill.
SJ – And you pick all of the information from the stump microphones?
DdP – Yes, that is correct. Sometimes, depending on how good the stump microphones are, I have actually sometimes heard the squeaking of the boots of the batsman when he plays a shot, but that’s invariably defensive shots. In other words, when he is trying to smother the spin, it may come down the wicket, but he’ll keep his bat and pad together, so he’ll come down the wicket and not necessarily hit over the top but just make very sure that he gets a good stride in so he’s not going to be out LBW, and then he’ll smother the spin by keeping bat and pad together and playing it nice and correctly. So some batsmen—Nassar Hussain particularly I remember against Zimbabwe back in 2000, courtesy of the stump mikes his boots were very squeaky. So I always knew when he was on strike without the commentator even saying so.
Another example was in 2001, it may have been VVS Laxman in the second innings of the second Test match against Zimbabwe, the Test that Zimbabwe actually won by four wickets, and his boots were very squeaky as well. Again, though, it was always when he was playing a defensive shot, not when he was playing an aggressive shot. I can only imagine that it’s because, when you want to play an aggressive shot, you’re not necessarily going to walk down the wicket, your footwork will be precise and you have to be quick on your feet because you know what shot you’re going to play. Now, I don’t know if any of this is right, so for goodness sake whoever is listening, I’m not a coach, I’m only telling you the way I see it because I didn’t hear any of that squeaking sound. I only heard that squeaking sound of their boots when they were playing defensive cricket.
SJ – I want to further understand the cricketing world that you inhabit. Would it be true to say that when one sense is limited the other senses become that much more powerful and you gather more information and make up for one, would I be right in saying that?
DdP – You probably would be right. A lot of people have said that to me and have asked me that question. Me being born blind, I’ve always been used to one dimension of my senses. Had I been born with sight and had I lost my sight, that obviously would put things into a different perspective, because then obviously your sense of smell gets a bit stronger, your sense of hearing gets a bit better, your general sense of being alive actually improves, because you now have to compensate for that fact that you no longer have your sight. My side of it, and anyone else who was born blind, is I’ve never had that sight, so therefore those other senses don’t have to compensate for the ones that I’ve never had, as opposed to having lost it.
If you say to me, “Dean, we’ve just had the first rains here in Africa and it’s very is green outside,” obviously I don’t know what the color green is like. But what I do is I take my memory… my memory… my understanding of the color green is my memories after the first African rains, and my brother and I always used to go climbing in this tree that was in our yard. And because he was bigger and older than me he was above me to make sure nothing happened to me, and he was quite a big heavy boy, so whenever he was on a branch, the branches would still be wet from the rain, and I was always cascaded with this water from my brother climbing up into the tree, and that lovely fresh fresh smell of the first rains, that to me is the meaning of green.
SJ – I have cricket dreams, and I know what Sachin Tendulkar looks like. If he were to appear, and he does appear from time to time, I have conversations with him, I am talking to Sachin Tendulkar. Do you have cricket dreams? And if you do, what is it that happens in it? Do you see something? Sorry, is it a sensation? What is happening in your dreams?
DdP – Firstly, never apologize when talking to me, because many people do think that blind people–first of all they don’t understand that blind people do dream, in our dreams, well certainly I can speak from my point of view, I’m still blind. Crazy things do happen in my dreams although I’m blind. I remember in 2001 I remember facing Shoaib Akhtar, and although I wasn’t able to see a thing, I was somehow able to hit the ball in front of square and down to deep back at square leg, and I remember it was so real that, in those days Rashid Latif was the wicket keeper and he was saying to me “Lucky, mate! You’re so lucky.” It was awesome! Sometimes I dream I’m playing cricket and I’m catching the ball. Again, that’s unconscious kicking in.
SJ – That’s what I want to understand. When you say “catching the ball” and “hitting the ball,” in your dream, is that a sensation of hitting it that you are feeling? What is it you are feeling?
DdP – To me, in my dream, what I hear, like when Shoaib Akhtar got to the crease. As you know, when you bowl, because he was putting in a lot of effort, you give quite a bit of a grunt. So in my dream I would know that it’s about, you have a split second to react and hit the ball. So I would more or less gauge on when I heard the grunt and the delivery, his delivery stride. You know a lot of quick bowlers, when they land, their foot drags a little bit as they deliver. Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar. I don’t necessarily know what that dragging sound is or why that happens, but you hear the drag, the grunt, and about a split second afterwards I would play my shot. But I have to tell you, there were no defensive shots, it was just swinging and hoping for the best (laughs).
SJ – While doing commentary, are you comfortable being the color guy or you think are capable of doing play-by-play guy as well?
DdP – I prefer being the color guy. Even if I could see, I’d prefer being the color guy. I believe I have a knack and a quality of describing things to you. So even if I were to suddenly be blessed and if I could see now, I don’t think I’d particularly be happy being the anchor commentator. To me, when I commentate, the way I describe certain things, and also from a blind person’s point of view that would be much nicer than play-by-play because like you and everybody else that hears me that wants to get inside my head and wants to know how I see it, that would be nicer. I don’t think I’d particularly be good as an anchor guy and I’d prefer to stick to being the color guy.
SJ – I see. What is it that you do for a living now? And, as you said you want to be a color commentator but these days, almost all of them are former Test cricketers. So where do you see yourself fitting in that?
DdP – What I do for a living at the moment is I work at a transport company and I work… unfortunately…I’m extremely grateful, first let me tell you I’m extremely grateful to have a job, because there are very qualified and fully sighted people around the world who don’t have anything, and I do have a job. I don’t necessarily like it a great deal. I work on a switch board, and I do a little bit of customer care as well, but it’s not something I particularly like doing.
As for my cricket career, my cricket life, I’ve got to the understanding and realization that full time cricket commentating is not going to happen. At first I was very disappointed about that, because everybody wanted to hear the story about how I commentate when I can’t see, and that’s as far as I’d got. But I’ve gotten to the understanding and realization that, as you rightly say, it’s mainly Test cricketers who commentate, be it anchor be it color, and that’s the way it is. You’re not going to change it. So, for me, unless there was a TV or radio station that said, “you know what, we want to make a bit of history, we want to change that, come aboard Dean and let’s give you a very fair chance to prove yourself,” and if they didn’t like what I did afterwards they are within their rights to say, “sorry, Dean, we’ve given you a chance, we’ve given you a fair crack, you’re not what we’re looking for,” and I would accept that. But the point is, nobody has actually given me a fair chance to prove myself. But I do also write articles now, and I’m loving it!
I suppose people might want to know how I do that, and it’s very simple. I have an iPhone, and as you know all iPhones have built in voice-overs and I have a Bluetooth keyboard. I can actually use the iPhone without a Bluetooth keyboard because it tells me where I’m tapping on the screen with my finger, but you have to understand when you are writing a column between 200 and 2000 words, it’s going to take you a long long time to do it on your iPhone (laughs). So I have a Bluetooth keyboard and as I’m typing my phone will tell me what it is that I’m typing.
You can go on to our website right now—I have a cricket page actually, I have a Facebook page that says Dean du Plessis Cricket Commentator and Journalist, you are more than welcome to follow me on that. I’m on Twitter as well if you’d like to follow me. I love writing articles. It’s something I was very very scared of at first, but again a lot of people told me, “why don’t you put your words into writing,” and again Neil Manthorp was extremely influential in giving me the courage and confidence that I needed. I don’t know why I was so scared of writing, but I was petrified. I was never ever petrified of commentating, but I was scared of writing, and now it’s something I can see myself doing full time, and the commentary work would be something that I’d do on the side. Maybe do a little bit of reporting for radio stations, but just as long as I can be a full time cricket journalist I guess is what I’m aiming for right now.
SJ – You have accomplished so much against the odds. A lot of people are blessed with a lot of things, including all of the senses, and don’t take full advantage of it. Whereas you have done something that is quite extraordinary, you know, be a commentator without being able to see. So from that perspective, someone that has overcome the odds and someone that never gives up, you still hold out for that dream of you being an on-air commentator?
DdP – I do, yes, very much so. I’ll be honest with you, there have been times when I have felt, “what is the point? I try hard and am getting nowhere,” where unfortunately the environment that we live in, people get picked to be commentators or journalists purely for the fact that they scored ten thousand runs with an average of 50, or took 320 wickets with an average of 23 or 24 and it doesn’t necessarily make them a good journalist or a good commentator. Now, I’m not for one minute suggesting that I am a good journalist or a good commentator, because goodness knows I have a lot of flaws, as does everyone else. But the point is, sometimes, especially after 13 years of really bending your back on an extremely flat wicket, and trying your hardest to get wickets and not getting them, yes you do think to yourself “what is the point in this?” But I love the game too much, and I love talking and writing about it too much, and I know that somebody, eventually, is going to get so fed up of hearing the story of Dean du Plessis the blind commentator, that basically just to shut me up they’ll employ me (laughs). And hopefully it can go from there and if we can work a good boss/worker relationship hopefully I’ll be around doing a lot of work for them in the future.
SJ – On that note, thank you Dean so much, it was an absolute pleasure having you on, and I wish you all the best and I hope all your dreams come true.
DdP – Thank you for being so kind as to have me on your show, and I wish you the very best, you are doing an outstanding job, thank you for having me.
SJ – Thanks, Dean. Cheers.
DdP – Thank you.
Episode transcribed by Kathleen Galligan