Harare, Zimbabwe – Dean du Plessis was born blind.
Forty-four years on, du Plessis says he is the world’s only blind cricket commentator and journalist and does not get tired of explaining how he is Zimbabwe’s most recognised voice in cricket.
“The stumps microphones are my bread and butter,” du Plessis told Al Jazeera.
“When you listen to the stump mic, you hear the bowler as he gets to the crease and bowls. They all have different ways. You listen to the grunts when they release the ball. You can hear the batsman’s voice and you know who they are, just by the way they call between the wickets whether they say no or wait’.”
Du Plessis was born in Harare and enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, spending the early years of his childhood in his hometown of Kadoma, a small municipality 142km (88 miles) outside of the capital.
He was initially drawn to broadcasting while at a boarding school for the blind in Worcester, just outside Cape Town in South Africa, and he idolised several radio commentators who covered domestic cricket in the country at that time.
Video: Meet Dean du Plessis, world’s first and only visually impaired cricket commentator | http://t.co/YhmaZrrtFJ pic.twitter.com/JpNzLwvbi8
— AJE Sport (@AJE_Sport) August 20, 2014
However, that extraordinary hearing ability – du Plessis’s biggest asset – is now fading, he said as he marked his 20th year covering the game.
“It’s very worrying, to be honest,” said du Plessis. “I sometimes go into complete panic mode. I want to get these hearing aids but they are not the normal, everyday aids. These cost $4,000 which is a lot of money.
“Nothing is impossible. If I can recover from two tumours that I was born with, which caused my blindness, surely I can find that amount from somewhere.”
‘Number one fan’
His older brother Gary, a club cricketer in Zimbabwe, and father Chris – a big cricket fan – were his earliest cricketing influences.
However, Gary died in a 2006 car crash and Chris passed away in 2020.
The loss of his father, and his hearing problems, have proved a major setback for du Plessis.
“My dad was my biggest supporter and number one fan. Nobody on this planet gets close. We both agreed that Dave Houghton [former captain] is the best player to have represented Zimbabwe.”
Houghton, who was recently appointed Zimbabwe’s coaching manager, has also been a very supportive figure in du Plessis’s career.
“We started to form a bond when I used to call him from our hostel call-box in South Africa and pester him,” chuckled du Plessis.
“I would personally not have been happy with a schoolboy continuously calling me to talk a whole bunch of nonsense. But Davie entertained me, and he was very kind to me.”
Houghton, too, has high respect for du Plessis.
“I’ve known Dean for many years. I first met him with his father while watching his brother play cricket,” Houghton told Al Jazeera.
“I’ve always known he had a great passion for the game and despite never being able to see, he has an incredible knowledge and understanding of the game. This makes him a very capable summariser of the game.”
Being endorsed as the best by du Plessis draws a typically modest reaction from Houghton.
“It’s very kind of him to rate me so highly,” said Houghton. “Personally, I would think Colin Bland was the best and Andy Flower next. Hopefully, I make the top 10.”
was on a flight with Dean du plessis:-) I think he is the 8th wonder of the world
— Makosi Musambasi (@MAKOSI) May 26, 2013
Brian Goredema, a local journalist, also speaks of du Plessis’s “amazing memory and knowledge”.
“I’ve known Dean for a while. For me, his greatest quality was that he never felt sorry for himself. He could see the funny side of his visual impairment. Two decades on, Dean is still a straight talker, but unfortunately his hearing is starting to fail him.”
Du Plessis was encouraged by another journalist, Neil Manthorp, who he calls an old friend, to go on air in 2001 when the first tri-series was played in Zimbabwe and included West Indies and India.
“I got the news after the conclusion of the first match between Zimbabwe and the West Indies. I was sitting in the press box and Craig Wishart pulled Ravi Rampaul into the midwicket stands and literally, as that happened, I was told that ‘you are making your commentary debut tomorrow’.
“I felt very excited that I was finally going to get the opportunity to show people that I’m capable. I wasn’t nervous at all. During commentary, I was relaxed. Afterwards, I thought I sounded all right. I wouldn’t say I was very good, but it certainly wasn’t bad.
“Like everybody who makes their commentary debut, you can hear that they are a bit reserved. I would say I sounded reserved too.”
Twenty years on, du Plessis feels he has not been given a fair crack of the whip, something he attributes to his outspokenness against the national cricket association, which has the prerogative of picking commentators for home series.
“I have to be very honest, I don’t think I have achieved anything I would have hoped to achieve,” du Plessis said.
“I’m very blessed that I have met a lot of people and I have been to a few tournaments, but I would have liked to be given more opportunities to prove myself. If I was told I wasn’t good enough, I would have accepted that. But I don’t believe that I have been given a fair chance to prove myself.”
Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) Chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani said du Plessis has not been deliberately sidelined.
“We’ve worked with Dean in ZC for years and his contribution to the game is commendable,” Mukuhlani said.
“Our approach has been to give a chance to the younger and upcoming guys, and they have done well. Also, you will appreciate that our FTP (Future Tours Programme) isn’t congested, we don’t get to play that much. So we can’t take everyone. When our FTP improves, we’ll start to include more commentators, including Dean.”
Apart from the limited opportunities, du Plessis also had to contend with a few questioning his place in society, given his disability.
“A lot of people turn their back on it, and don’t want anything to do with it,” du Plessis said. “The rest have always been reasonably accommodating. Others have been genuinely wonderful people who want to talk cricket and life in general.”
He also thinks apart from former players and renowned commentators, more diverse backgrounds should be included in the commentary box.
“Provided they know what they are talking about, I will say yes. Obviously, you can’t just take anybody and thrust them there because they are cricket lovers.”
Over the past four years, two radio stations have employed du Plessis on a full-time basis, after some serious convincing in a country where jobs are scarce.
However, he left both jobs for different reasons.
Zimbabwe’s fall in cricket
Du Plessis still keenly follows the Zimbabwe team, which has plummeted considerably over the past 17 years.
And he blames the plunge on a bitter row between 15 senior players and the board, which resulted in the sacking of the stars in 2004.
“I think Zimbabwe cricket has never really recovered from what happened in 2004,” he said.
“I believe the white players and the administrators who took over both had a part to play in the destruction of Zimbabwe cricket. I think there is equal blame and Zimbabwe cricket has never been able to recover fully from that.
“We’ve certainly had moments but I don’t think the team has recovered. Unless there is a very big change at the top in terms of the governing of Zimbabwe cricket, I don’t think it will ever get back to where we were.”