Commentator and former England fast bowler Robin Jackman – or “Jackers” as he is more affectionately known in cricketing circles – is widely recognised for his witty repartee and unmistakable enthusiasm for the game, but behind the grin there lies a benevolent soul that has now embarked on a project to restore sight to thousands of underprivileged South Africans.
Mr Jackman, who also represented Western Province in his heyday and lives in Newlands, was the keynote speaker at a Stonecroft Ministries tea held at the Kelvin Grove Club in Newlands last week, where he spoke about the Herculean effors being made to reduce blindness among the country’s rural population.
To this end, he has teamed up with the Grace Vision project, an NPO that has already brought a new level of eye care service to the communities south east of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.
The organisation recorded astonishing results in 2015, screening a total of 6 782 patients, distributing 2 320 pairs of glasses and prescribing more than 4 500 bottles of eye drops. In addition, of the 579 cataract patients identified, 249 received surgeries.
“I became involved in the project thanks to my daughter, who was working with the organisation when it was still known as Mercy Ships,” Mr Jackman told the Tatler.
“I started doing commercials for the project, and progressively became more involved. I think what struck me most was how vast the area is the guys have to cover. It is not like in Khayelitsha, where you could treat everyone in a certain space. There logistics are mind-blowing and the roads in the area are terrible, yet they still manage to attend to these patients.”
Mr Jackman said it was hoped that the project would be able to expand to other rural communities, including those in the Western Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
Grace Vision chief executive John Rae said what was remarkable was that the cataract operation took only 15 minutes.
“The look on people’s faces when the bandages come off is something that is too special. In fact, we had one elderly gentleman who had not been able to see for 25 years. When we removed the bandages, he looked at his wife and said, ‘How did you get so old?’ “ he said, much to Mr Jackman’s amusement.
Mr Jackman also used the occasion to address aspects of spirituality, telling guests how through his beliefs he had managed to overcome cancer and other challenges in life.
“Growing up in England, I attended a boarding school where there was Sunday school every day and twice every Sunday. When I reached my teens I used the excuse that I was ‘churched out’. I was also often asked whether I thought I would go to heaven, and I would say, ‘yeah, I’m not a bad guy. I listen to Cliff Richard’s gospel music and Christian rock ’* roll.’
“Then a few things happened. A friend of mine, golfer Peter Matkovich, invited me to play golf in Mauritius. I was paired with a former Natal cricketer, Tich Smith. Now Tich had been a gambler of note, and had lost everything. But God reached out to Tich. He started selling insurance, and later became a millionaire.
“So we are on one of the holes, and Tich reads me a passage from the bible, and asks me to go away and think about this. At dinner that evening, we started discussing what he had read. I remember going outside for a smoke, and I looked up at the sky. I couldn’t believe what I saw, because the clouds were going behind the moon. I actually had to do a double take. I took this as a sign.”
However, Mr Jackman said as much as that evening had resonated with him, he again fell into a pattern of aimlessness.
“Then I got a call from a friend called Malcolm Russell, whose daughter Laura was a speech therapist. At that stage she was lecturing a group of UCT students. I was in Johannesburg on my way to commentate on the Australia and Pakistan series. I had known Laura since she was young, so she had heard my voice a lot. Her father called me to tell me that she had asked him to ask me if everything was alright, as my speech was different.
“She also recommended that I see an ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor). As it turned out, I had a growth on my vocal cords. After treatment, I thought I was in the clear, but the growth kept coming back. That’s when I went for radiation treatment, and so far the growths have not returned.”
Mr Jackman said it was at that point he realised “this was my final invitation”, and Laura’s intuition was God’s way of “waking me up”.
Of course no conversation with Robin Jackman is complete without one or other reference to the game he holds so dear.
Asked about the Proteas’ chances at the upcoming ICC World Twenty20, he said T20 cricket was a “lottery and will remain a lottery”.
“You can have a (West Indies batsman) Chris Gayle or AB De Villiers coming in at the top of the order and smashing a hundred, and the game’s over. It’s a bit like Sevens rugby in that respect. You can have wonderful players, but on the day you can be beaten by anyone.
“To win a Test match, you have to have six or seven of 11 players performing, whereas in this format it only takes one.”
* Grace Vision can be found at 11 Kendal Mews, 1234 Main Road in Diep River, Cape Town. For more information on how you can donate, contact 021 715 4944 or email john.rae@ gracevision.org.za