The sense of shock and lingering regret that accompanied the news of the sudden death of Dean Jones is not unfamiliar to those who followed the Australian’s time as a cricketer, albeit the gravity of his sudden death trumps previous surprises.
Yet, as one grapples with the news, it is hard not to seek out what endeared him to so many. To understand what made Jones stand out from his peers who were no less remarkable.
Jones, aged 59, suffered a heart attack in Mumbai on Thursday, where he was working as a commentator for the ongoing Indian Premier League. Commentary had come to define him over the past two decades, a job that revealed the many contrasts that had outlined his public image as a cricketer. Jones spoke with alacrity, tapping into a mind that never really lost its vitality and spark. You could trust him to be honest with his words, a commentator who combined instinct with a deep appreciation for the nuances of the game.
You could also trust Jones to be brash at times, abrasive even. It is hard to think of Jones the commentator without recalling the on-air incident in 2006 when he called Hashim Amla a “terrorist”, a racist remark that Jones lived to regret. He lost his contract with Ten Sports, chastising himself in the aftermath for what he considered to be a “silly and completely insensitive thing to say”. A brief absence from the game followed, but Jones soon returned with his characteristic pizzazz and sharp analysis. The moment does stick in the throat as we remember him, but there is much else that leaves a lump as well.
The colour and exuberance that Jones brought to our television screen won him multiple admirers across the world, especially in India where he found numerous commentary assignments. India was a place that Jones held dear. It was in hot Chennai after all, during the 1986 tour of Australia, where he played his most memorable knock – a double hundred in the iconic tied test that left him seven kilos lighter and on a hospital bed with a saline drip. That innings was the making of Jones into an intense competitor who battled hard, although the results were not always to his and his fans’ satisfaction.
A year later, Australia won its first World Cup in India with Jones playing a pivotal role. One-day cricket brought the best out of him. Jones finished with a batting average above 44, firmly establishing his place among the all-time greats. The cricketer from the suburbs of Melbourne set the standard in the game for running between the wickets, with crowds responding to his twos and threes in a manner that they would usually reserve for fours or sixes.
The way Jones thought about limited-overs cricket revealed a cricketer who was a few steps ahead of his peers. He was One Day Magic, the title of his first book. Anyone who saw Jones pummel fast bowlers by charging down the wicket would testify to the same. Jones was a product of the strong club cricket network in Australia that had deeply influenced the development of so many of his peers.
As a batsman, the early Jones could be attractive and reckless in equal measure. But the admiration he earned sustained, since it did not merely rely on his batting exploits. For instance, he was among the first cricketers to wear sunglasses on the field – a fact he never tired of repeating.
The sharp dressing and the swift-running extended to his tongue that was no less quick, a precursor of the fruitful commentary career which was to follow. Jones did not think twice when it came to criticising the high and mighty of Australian cricket, even inviting the threat of legal trouble once when his uncharitable comments about the legendary Bobby Simpson’s coaching style rubbed the latter the wrong way. The bleak patches of form that beset his career meant that Jones’ place in the side was also a subject of continued debate. The final straw arrived in 1994 when he was dropped for the one-day series decider against South Africa, prompting a shock retirement. Jones played and left on his terms, to the extent possible.
The tumultuous times as a cricketer, fortunately, did not dim the energy of the forthright observer. Dean Jones never forgave those Australian cricketers who went to play in South Africa during the apartheid. He also remained resolute in his stand on accepting commentary duties in Zimbabwe during the years when the country was boycotted by many owing to the excesses of Robert Mugabe’s rule. In his later years, Jones carried a favourable reputation for travelling far and wide to work as a commentator and also as a coach. No assignment was below his stature, as he coached in Afghanistan and commentated in T20 competitions like the Tamil Nadu Premier League.
The love for cricket seemed to trump other considerations that are often presented as no less serious. Jones once famously said, “I didn’t go out there to play for Australia. I went out there to play and have fun.” Jones was not one for valorising his commitment to the nation. Instead, it was his love for his province Victoria that seemed to matter more. It was almost poetic that his only international hundred at his home venue, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, was achieved for a World XI against Australia. Jones wished to be a great cricketer, above all, and his record does not suggest otherwise.
It’s poignant too that Jones left the world during the IPL. Back in 2007, he had served as operations manager for the Indian Cricket League – the breakaway T20 competition created by the Zee network that sought to tap into the format’s fledgeling popularity. Although the IPL was able to rely on the BCCI’s heft to displace its inferior cousin, the two tournaments shared many similarities in their organisation. Jones played a pivotal role in outlining how franchise cricket could be administered and run. It was quite befitting that he contributed to the most significant transformation of cricket in the 21st century, not very dissimilar from the manner in which his style of batting two decades ago had suggested developments in the offing.
Right from the tour in 1986, Jones enjoyed his time in India. Looking back at his first visit, Jones noticed a shift in perception among the Australians about travelling to the subcontinent for cricket. He recalled in an interview to ESPNCricinfo, “Every other Australian team had said, ‘You’re going to get sick, there’s millions of people, it’s hard work, the grounds are awful and they’ll turn square’.” After Australia won the World Cup in 1987, the change in outlook was well on its way. Jones embodied the shift in perception.
He famously kept Sunil Gavaskar’s cap on his mantelpiece at home, and Jones remained the face of Star Sports’ IPL coverage until his death. Thirty-four years ago in Chennai, people around the Australian team feared the worst when Jones had to be hospitalised after his marathon knock. He was dehydrated, involuntarily peeing his pants, and barely able to walk. Jones eventually woke up in the middle of the night, recovering soon after. On Thursday, how dearly we wished that Jones would be revived again following the heart attack. Sadly, it was not to be.
Priyansh is a writer based in Toronto. He tweets @Privaricate