One of the Proteas’ few success stories from the World Cup, Rassie van der Dussen, now wants to kick on and do more for his country.
Sachin Tendulkar often hopped on a plane from his native Mumbai to London to escape the passion and sometimes suffocating scrutiny of his fanatical Indian fan base. The ‘Little Master’ would check into his St John’s Wood apartment just to spend some time in the Lord’s nets with his son Arjun, eat strawberries and cream at Wimbledon and do some shopping on Bond Street.
Rassie van der Dussen has no such life problems. He can comfortably fill up his shopping trolley at his local grocer in Johannesburg without too much fuss. In fact, even when someone does indeed recognise the Proteas No 4, they still associate him with someone else.
‘When I introduce myself to people, they often say, “Like [Springbok coach] Rassie Erasmus!” My second name is Erasmus, so that’s where the Rassie comes from. I don’t think we look very similar, but I definitely think he is the most recognisable Rassie in the world,’ Van der Dussen tells SA Cricket magazine.
‘Over the past year, though, I have probably been recognised a bit more. They don’t always put two and two together, but when they hear it’s me, sometimes people want to take pictures and have a little chat.’
After Van der Dussen’s exploits at the World Cup, where he stroked 311 runs at an average of 62.20, there should certainly be more people who know ‘the other Rassie’.
Despite being part of a team that struggled to find its collective rhythm and was under severe pressure throughout the tournament, Van der Dussen found a way to stay inside his bubble and block out all the outside noise to take full advantage of playing in his maiden World Cup.
He was particularly mentally strong – not a trait associated with many Proteas at global events – when midway through the campaign the ‘AB-gate’ bubble burst. Unjustly, and possibly without even thinking of the repercussions on the World Cup rookie, Van der Dussen was cast in the spotlight as the batsman the Proteas selectors had not wanted to leave out to accommodate De Villiers’ comeback.
‘Did it affect me? No. I’m quite happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as AB,’ Van der Dussen said. ‘He is one of the best there’s ever been. Do I have to replace him? I don’t feel I do. Can I play match-winning innings for my country? I think I can.’
The tone wasn’t arrogant. Neither was it disrespectful to De Villiers’ legendary status. But it also conveyed the unmistakeable message that Van der Dussen had full confidence in his abilities.
That self-belief stemmed from his unconventional path to the Proteas which took him from Pretoria to Potchefstroom via St Kitts and Nevis and Vancouver. Add Ireland and the Netherlands into that mix too. It was a character-building journey that instilled life-long values, such as hard work, commitment and dedication to his trade.
When Cricket South Africa chief executive Thabang Moroe publicly expressed his disappointment at the Proteas’ dismal World Cup campaign and stated that South Africa need to find a way to ‘breed strong tough-minded cricketers’, he could easily have added, ‘like Rassie van der Dussen’, for the 30-year-old is the prototype that is being sought.
This cricketer exemplifies leadership qualities, which haven’t gone unnoticed within the confines of the Proteas dressing room. Captain Faf du Plessis waxed lyrical about Van der Dussen’s composure during the World Cup and views the Highveld Lions batsman as the heir
to his throne. The skipper’s admiration increased after the pair shared a match-winning 151-run partnership at Old Trafford against arch-enemy Australia.
‘Obviously it’s a compliment hearing these things from Faf,’ Van der Dussen said. ‘It’s just something I naturally do. I try to understand what the captain is thinking and doing. I am always thinking anyway, and offering suggestions to the captain.’
So would he do it the ‘Faf way’ or have his own style?
‘I would do what comes naturally to me. I would try to understand the players first before trying to guide them. I would be open to giving players responsibility. At the Lions, I challenge players to think for themselves and not have to rely on someone else to think
‘So, if it does happen, that’s how I will go about it. I will be demanding in terms of standards, the way you do things and I’m a very straight and to-the-point type of guy. I won’t be scared to ask the hard questions because I expect the hard questions to be asked of me.’
Although Van der Dussen is seemingly being set up to be an integral part of the Proteas’ future, there is a genuine concern that South Africa’s talent cupboard is bare, and playing resources are constantly being raided by English counties in search of Kolpak defectors.
But he doesn’t believe his great trek to the top is unique and that there are many, like prolific Cape Cobras batsman Pieter Malan, who are ready to represent the Proteas.
‘Myself and Pieter started playing fairly early. He came from Nelspruit. We played together from Grade 9, but he progressed quite quickly to SA U19 and then the Titans. Eventually, he moved to the Cape and I moved to the Lions, so we sort of split up there.
‘There are lots of similarities between us. It is all about getting opportunity. He started at the Titans and then eventually had to move to Western Province, where he had to play a few years of amateur cricket and grind it out. It was only a couple of years ago that he was selected for the Cobras and hasn’t looked back.
‘It is amazing that I have represented the Proteas, and he was so close to playing Test cricket just a few months ago. I believe he will still get there. He has just got better with age. He is one of those guys on the local scene who knows his game, which is valuable for an opener in red-ball cricket. We also played at the same time in Ireland as overseas pros.’
But, surely, before handing out Test caps to his mates, Van der Dussen has his own dreams of wearing the whites of the Proteas, even as early as the first Test against world No 1 India at Visakhapatnam in October?
‘It is difficult to say. There are guys who I would be competing against, who have had a long run and been backed. I have done quite well the past three seasons in red-ball cricket and hopefully my opportunity will come,’ he says. ‘I suppose it can be possible. I dream that if I am picked I will be ready and be able to perform like I have now when given the opportunity. It is something I badly want to achieve.’
During the final league clash in Manchester, he went through a period where he struggled to adapt to the pace of the pitch and intensity of the Australian attack. In fact, wicketkeeper Alex Carey missed a stumping off Nathan Lyon when Van der Dussen had just five off 22 balls.
It was the first time in his brief international career that Van der Dussen had looked out of place on the big stage. But to his credit and through sheer bloody-mindedness, he changed the script and got to work, eventually finishing one stroke short of his maiden ODI century.
It was further testimony to the fact that Van der Dussen was ready for Test cricket, and that he has the qualities to graduate to playing longer innings for his country.
‘The mindset in white-ball cricket is that there’s always something at play. Either you are chasing a score, or you are trying to set one. That’s always at the back of your mind.
‘In the longer form, I think every ball brings the same pressure, but you don’t have “situational pressure” if you can call it that. You can give every ball your undivided attention and focus purely on your game plan without the pressure of scoring. That’s the biggest shift in your mindset.’
Throughout our interview Van der Dussen had been sitting casually, dressed in shorts, T-shirt, tackies and cap bearing the logo ‘Proudly African’. He certainly is proud to be African and in particular South African. And after a World Cup where there was more heartbreak than cheers, South Africans can be proud of him and look forward to the future with confidence.
*This feature first appeared in SAC145, now on sale.
Photo: Gallo Images