ANALYSIS: Rassie van der Dussen’s keeping cool
In nine 50 over games, he was the team’s highest scorer with 308 runs at 44. In three four-day games that season he averaged 44.5 scorings two fifties.
LONDON - Rassie van der Dussen does something that not many professional athletes do. He answers questions. Not in the platitude-filled way that leaves you thinking you’ve received an answer but in actuality, all you’ve been served is a heap of throwaway soundbites. No, what Van der Dussen does is listen to your question, takes a second to digest and then answers with as much sincerity as he can muster.
The toughest question he fielded at Thursday’s media briefing concerned AB de Villiers who, as you surely know by now, made a last-ditch attempt on the eve of the World Cup squad announcement to come out of retirement. What did Van der Dussen make of the minor scandal?
“I wasn’t surprised AB wanted to make a comeback on the world’s biggest stage. That is what all players have in common.”
Yes, but did it affect him? After all, had De Villiers not retired when he did, or indeed had Faf du Plessis and Ottis Gibson acquiesced to his requests, then Van der Dussen might have been the player to miss out.
“It didn’t affect me as much as people would like to believe,” Van der Dussen said after some pause for thought. “I’m happy being mentioned in the same sentence as AB. He’s one of the best there has ever been. Do I have to replace him? I don’t feel I have to. Can I play a match-winning innings for my country? I believe I can. Is that what he did? Yes, it is.”
Simple enough. But then, Van der Dussen is someone who likes to keep things simple. Perhaps it is his age. He made his international debut in January this year as a 29-year-old who had taken the scenic route to top-level cricket. Stints of varying success had seen him represent Northern and North West before he was given a chance with the Lions win the 2013/14 season.
In nine 50 over games, he was the team’s highest scorer with 308 runs at 44. In three four-day games that season, he averaged 44.5 scorings two fifties. Since then his progress has been eye-catching. Last year, he won the Global T20 Canada with the Vancouver Knights which earned him a contract with St Kitts & Nevis Patriots in the Caribbean Premier League.
He carried that domestic form into the inaugural Mzanzi Super League and was the competition’s highest run-scorer in a title-winning campaign. It is on the back of this success that he answers another tough question about the state of domestic cricket in South Africa and its ability to produce international standard players.
“Judge that on me,” he said, opening his arms as if inviting inspection. “I feel it does. We have very good players in South Africa and it doesn’t matter if a guy hasn’t played international cricket. The nature of sport in South Africa is that it is highly competitive. You need to sink or swim.”
Swim he has. In 11 ODI innings, he has scored just under 500 runs at an average of 66.57. In the opening game of the World Cup against England he showed he was not daunted by the biggest occasion of his life and scored 50 before succumbing to Jofra Archer’s extra pace and bounce.
In that innings, and in the 41 against Bangladesh and the 22 against India, he showed signs that he can roll with the big dogs of top-level cricket. Unafraid to take on the short ball, irrepressible on the drive, a smart runner between the wickets; he ticks every box that needs ticking from a middle order batter.
But what about the stuff between his ears? South Africans at the World Cup is often a noxious combination. Another tough question: does he feel pressure?
“Of course, [the] pressure is nothing new,” he said, oddly comfortable with vulnerability for an elite athlete. “As a sportsman, you’re always under pressure. As a national sportsman even more so. If someone thinks there isn’t pressure, let that be a newsflash to them. I read the articles that are posted and I follow along on social media. Some players don’t like to engage but I like to see what the general feeling is.”
Van der Dussen needs no reminding that the general feeling is one that is fluctuating between anger and resentment. Three defeats and a wash-out has left South Africa with just one point from four matches and facing an unexpectedly early exit. The weather will need to play ball but anything other than a victory against Afghanistan in Cardiff on Saturday will signal the end of this World Cup journey.
“We know what we have to do,” Van der Dussen said. “We’re confident and we’re positive. I like to keep it simple and let the game dictate the way I play. [Against Afghanistan and their wily spinners] I’ll maybe look to hit straight and target the short boundary there. I don’t think it’ll turn a lot but I try not think too much. You have to prepare for the unexpected and make sure you produce the goods on match day.”
After a gruelling session of tough questions, Van der Dussen is giving a juicy half volley to end proceedings. “How have you enjoyed your World Cup experience so far?”
“I’m loving it,” he said, the tone in his voice lifting. “I expected it to be high pressure. I expected there to be some backlash when we lose. I expected people to have strong opinions. But I’m loving it.”
And why not? He is a man who has not rushed to get where he is. His path has been traversed with measured steps and an underlying calmness. And in case you don’t believe that all you have to do is ask him a question.