22 February 2012

Zimbabwe: The Amazing Dean Du Plessis

Harare — Cricket commentator Dean du Plessis gauges the field action with his ears: a bowler's grunt as he hurls forward, the drag of feet along the pitch, or the crack of a bat slamming into a ball.

The Zimbabwean is one of the world's few sightless sports analysts, plying his remarkable expertise by training his acute hearing on the stump microphones despite being born with a blindness that was meant to kill him.

"I was born with tumors on both my retinas, so I was only meant to be alive for three to a maximum five months -- but I'm 35, not out now, so still playing a good innings," he said.

Alongside daily radio work, sports bulletins and a newspaper column which he writes on his voice-enabled cellphone, Du Plessis also sits in the broadcasters' commentary booth where he provides colour to the anchor's match breakdown.

"Robin Jackman will say something like 'driven through the covers, that will be four, good shot'," he explained, smoothly gearing into cricket jargon with radio-esque poise.

"And then it will be my job to say 'well, that is arguably Jacques Kallis' most favourite shot, outside the offstump, a little bit of width, which allowed him to free his arms."

Du Plessis, who is The Herald's cricket correspondent, says he gets no preferential treatment but is wholly dependent on the stump microphones which identify each player's unique characteristics.

These range from England Test skipper Andrew Strauss' "yeah, come on, come on, come on" when wanting to make a run for it, to former Australian spinner Shane Warne's huge grunt, and South African Graeme Smith on a hook or pull shot.

"If I turn my microphones down, I really will be blind," he said.

"Obviously having followed the game for just over 20 years and having commentated for 10 going on 11 years, you get to understand, and you get to know which player does what and that's pretty much how I know what's going on out there."

'It's just my way of adapting to the situation'

It was the stupendous noise of 80 000 roaring Indian fans in a radio broadcast more than 20 years ago that piqued his interest in the sport while at a boarding school for the blind in South Africa, where he would later drum up mock match reports.

Faced with sceptics who believe he is being fed information, Du Plessis says he would slip up if forced to concentrate on too many voices. But he does fear making a mistake each time he goes on air.

"Touch wood, it hasn't happened yet, thank goodness, and I wouldn't wish that upon my worst enemy," he said.

"But I do understand that you're not going to be perfect the whole time and a time is going to come when I am going to get it very, very wrong.

"And I just hope that when that happens, that people will be a little understanding -- that at the end of the day, regardless of me being able to see or not to see, I'm only human."

His blindness has led to amusing situations.

Australia opener David Warner -- the "nicest guy" he's met in the past six months -- assumed his blank gaze was booze-induced and came over to see if he was okay, said Du Plessis.

"They are amazed," he says of how people react to him.

"But, you know, to me it's a little silly because, if you really think about it, it's nothing as spectacular as what people make it out to be. It is just my way of adapting to the situation."

Former Zimbabwean national coach Kevin Curran describes Du Plessis, who was taught the game by his late cricketer brother Gary, as "an inspiration to us all."

"If you didn't know that he was blind from birth, I mean, you wouldn't realise it. I often say 'how does he know that, how does he know that?'"

Du Plessis, a Harare resident, sees his future outside Zimbabwe and says he would be at the airport in a flash if offered a job elsewhere.

"I love this country, it's where I grew up, it's where I was born," he said.

"But at the end of the day I have to look after myself as well and there's not enough cricket that is being played here at the moment.

"And, more importantly, there's not enough broadcasting opportunities for me because of that.

"So I'm quite prepared to settle down anywhere.

"I want to be a full-time cricket broadcaster for many years to come so, as they say in cricketing terms: if the ball is there and if you want to hit it, then hit it hard."


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