By Mehluli Sibanda
WHEN Dean Du Plessis was born with cancerous growths behind his eyes 43 years ago, doctors told his parents that he had only three months to live.
The man now famously known for being the only visually impaired international cricket commentator has had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles from the day he drew his first breath.
His is an extraordinary tale of guts, human endurance, dreams and sweat to be the best.
He came into this world with tumours at the back of his retinas, which destroyed his ability to see. He was practically born blind. As if this was not enough, although Du Plessis is married, he has erectile dysfunction that prevents him from having children. He encourages men with the same problem to be open about it and seek help.
Du Plessis has never seen a cricket bat, cricket field or ball.
However, words like yorker, cover drive, nick, fifer — cricket lingo — trill off his tongue like a machine gun sprays bullets when he gives blow-by-blow live cricket commentary.
The sport has few takers among sports journalists in Zimbabwe but Du Plessis — without eyes — describes it with captivating clarity as he gives mind-blowing blow-by-blow commentary.
He uses microphones installed on cricket stump to hear the sound the ball makes on the bat and knows with uncanny accuracy, the kind of strike it is and who made it. Du Plessis’s genius extends to broadcast where he does popular podcasts “Dean at Stumps” for Zimpapers’ Capitalk 100.4 FM.
“I was born with two tumours behind my retinas and the doctor told my parents that I had three to maximum five months to live but my parents didn’t quite believe that. Maybe they did but just tried to block it out really. When I was three months old, just to slow the cancer down, they removed my right eye. Both eyes have subsequently been removed, with the left one taken out in January 2001,’’ Du Plessis says, in his trademark firm voice that exudes confidence.
Born on January 30 in 1977 in Harare, Du Plessis grew up in the capital city before moving to Kadoma where his grandparents were born, which was to be his home for 13 years.
Getting education for the young Du Plessis was difficult in those days since the world was not as advanced as it is now.
“Being totally blind from birth, back in those years, as you can imagine there was no internet, even to try and find a private tutor was very difficult, it wasn’t about just that, it was about also having to learn skills that blind people do,” he narrates.
In person, he possesses that stillness peculiar to people with “extra sensory perception” who use more than their eyes to see.
Many would be curious about what he sees in his dreams since he has never been able to see his whole life. Du Plessis says he does have dreams but, he is still blind in his sleep.
“I’ve never been able to see so I don’t know what it is like to see, many times people would say to me surely you see dark or you see black, I don’t know what dark or black is because I’ve never seen it. I do dream and my dreams are exactly as they are when I am awake, in fact my dreams are actually very vivid but I am still blind in my dreams,’’ he explains.
His parents decided to send him to a boarding school, Saint Giles in Harare when he was three years old, which was meant to get him geared up for further schooling outside the country.
“At the age of three we were living in Kadoma, I started attending boarding school at St Giles in Harare. This was to prepare me for what was to come at the age of six in 1983, I then started attending a school down in a town called Worcester outside of Cape Town,’’ Du Plessis said.
Life was not rosy in South Africa for Du Plessis, seeing that he was English speaking and had also started learning Shona words. Here he was, in an Afrikaans-speaking town, with his surname, he was expected to know the language. Du Plessis quickly learnt that for him to survive in this harsh environment, he had to learn Afrikaans.
“A lot of the kids would say your surname is Du Plessis which is Afrikaans, why don’t you speak a word of Afrikaans. Technically speaking Du Plessis is actually a French surname but when the French Huguenots moved to South Africa, then it became an Afrikaans surname. This English speaking Du Plessis had to quickly learn that in order to survive in this hostile and unfriendly place is you have to learn to speak Afrikaans so I did that,” Du Plessis recalls.
It was while he was at school in South Africa that Du Plessis fell in love with cricket. The year was 1991, when South Africa came back from isolation and embarked on a tour of India, which consisted of three One Day Internationals. Du Plessis listened to South African domestic cricket a lot on radio before the Proteas embarked on that tour of India.
The 1992 Cricket World Cup further strengthened his love for cricket. When that tournament came, he was an avid follower of the game. All Du Plessis spoke about when he came home for the holidays was cricket.
His involvement in cricket commentary would eventually come in June 2001 during the Coca-Cola Cup, a One Day International triangular series involving Zimbabwe, India and West Indies. While he was wandering about at Harare Sports Club, Du Plessis heard people doing radio commentary and was captivated.
“I was able to walk into the television box and had a chat with the TV commentators there. Ravi Shastri, Tony Cozier (late), Colin Croft was also there. I walked down the passage then I heard other voices then I thought these guys are doing radio commentary.
“Neil Manthorp and other guys were doing audio commentary on Cricinfo. Neil recognised me from my interview with Ravi Shastri just as a cricket fan during tea time of the fourth day of the second Test match when Zimbabwe were playing India,’’ says Du Plessis.
How does he know what is happening on the field?
“You can hear that by listening to stump microphones, the stump microphones are very important, I can hear who the bowler is by the way that they get to the crease so in that gather and delivery certain bowlers give a certain grunt, others are very quiet when they get to the crease, others drag their feet quite a bit. I can tell the type of shot the batsman has played from the sound produced by the bat,” he explains.
“I got my television gig in 2003 and that was special when Zimbabwe played West Indies in the second One Day International. I made my television debut alongside Australian Mike Haysman.”
He is motivated by Rick Allen, the drummer of his much-loved musical band, Def Leppard who despite losing his left arm in a car accident is still considered the best in what he does. It is such motivation which keeps Du Plessis going whenever he is having a bad day.
He is now a full-time freelance cricket journalist and is famous for his podcasts, Dean at Stumps, which are broadcast on Zimpapers radio station, Capitalk 100.4 FM every Tuesday night. The digital audio files are also available online. Du Plessis worked for Swift Transport as a switchboard operator from 1994 until he was retrenched in 2015. He learnt how to operate a switchboard while at school in South Africa.
“I am following my passion, I am living the dream, I’ve had no financial reward for all the interviews I’ve done with people but one day my podcasts will land up in the right people’s hands and I think things will start happening for me,” he says.
Had he not fallen in love with cricket, what else could Du Plessis be doing with his life?
“When I was a very little boy, people tried to encourage me to pursue singing but I was always too shy, maybe I would have been another Andrea Bocelli (blind Italian opera singer, songwriter, tenor and record producer) although I’ve always been a rock enthusiast, I’ve never enjoyed opera too much,’’ says Du Plessis.
He is married to Louise, with the couple having met in 2012 at a braai, something Du Plessis thoroughly enjoys when he is not doing cricket.
“Louise and I met at my most favourite thing when I am not doing cricket and that is a braai, a mutual friend invited us to a braai. Louise didn’t really know a thing about cricket at all. We were complete opposites, I like a few beers, I like my whiskey, my dry red wine, I like a few tequilas, Louise doesn’t touch alcohol, she comes from a very strict Christian family,’’ he said.
Sadly, the couple has no children.
“We don’t have children; I have a rather unique situation and this is something I am not embarrassed about because I could be reaching out to many men who have a similar situation. I’ve had erectile problems forever, we’ve tried every bit of medication, we even went for correctional surgery, that didn’t work, and my body rejected it so we don’t have any children,’’ Du Plessis said.
Du Plessis has had unforgettable experiences with public transport, with the most memorable being in 2004 when he caught a commuter omnibus on his way to the Registrar General’s offices to collect his passport.
“I vividly remember using public transport in 2004 when I had to go to the passport office, which was great fun. I had been on TV quite a few times so people were beginning to know who I was, including the conductor.
“So, we jumped into the kombi and a lot of people kindly said sit but I chose to stand since I was the last one to board. I took hold of the pole, before I was even in, before the door had even closed the driver was moving away already, so I was holding onto the pole and talking to the conductor, not realising that the pole was full of grease.
“So, I was beginning to slip, my one foot was out of the door, my other foot was in the door and my hands were slipping on this greasy pole and I couldn’t stop laughing. I got to the passport office covered in grease, the lady who had my passport ready jokingly said I can’t give you this passport because you not the same person who was here the other day,’’ Du Plessis said.
He relies on friends when he boards kombis to tell him when it’s time to drop off.
Du Plessis’ story can certainly serve as an inspiration to other visually impaired people that they can live their dreams despite their disability.