Rassie van der Dussen: A Test debutant ten years in the making

How’s this for a #10yearchallenge?

In 2009, Rassie van der Dussen was a change-room attendant for the South African team that was playing England in a Test in Centurion.

In 2019, Rassie van der Dussen is on the cusp of a Test debut for South Africa, against England in Centurion.

Social media has its uses.

“It was the 16th [of December], and on that day you get memories on your phone from previous years on Facebook. And it showed that 10 years ago I was here helping out in the change-room as a, sort of, 14th man. And that’s where I met Boucher, Kallis, Smith … all these guys. And I had the whites on and I think I fielded for two or three overs,” van der Dussen remembered.

It was also December 16 when van der Dussen was announced as one of six uncapped in the Test squad. And the coincidence was too good to ignore. “It made me reflect on the journey. I’m really happy,” he said.

But not all 10 of the years between 2009 and 2019 were smooth sailing for van der Dussen. In 2012, he moved from Pretoria to Potchefstroom, a student town 180 kilometres away, without a contract, to try to play white-ball cricket for the provincial team North-West. At Northerns, his opportunities were limited to red-ball cricket (the irony!) because the white-ball stars were already in place.

At North-West, van der Dussen played 19 matches and scored 952 runs at an average of 63.46 in the space of three years, and forced his way into the Lions’ franchise team, where his 1608 runs in 47 matches at 42.31 showed his quality. But it wasn’t those numbers that got him into the South African ODI squad.

Rather, that call-up came off the back of his table-topping effort in the inaugural edition of the Mzansi Super League (MSL) where his 469 runs in 12 matches at 58.68 helped the Jozi Stars win the title. From there came the World Cup call-up where, amid weeks of negativity, van der Dussen stood out as South Africa’s only positive. He was their second-highest run-scorer after captain Faf du Plessis and showed remarkable composure when all around him, things were crumbling.

Age has its uses too.

Van der Dussen was almost 30 when he made his international debut and had experienced the disappointment of not being good enough and the hardships of having to make it over several years of hard graft. His maturity resulted in calls for him to be included in the Test squad to tour India but he was never officially included. He hung around the squad for the first Test and returned home to play three rounds of first-class cricket. He scored two half-centuries and 154 not out for the Lions to force his way into the Test squad and is ready for what that will bring.

“I came back from India having worked with the Test team there, and I knew I had to take those lessons and try and apply them,” van der Dussen said. “In the other formats, you can hide some of your weaknesses and get away with it, whereas in Test cricket there’s nowhere to hide. I’m really looking forward to that challenge. I’ve gone fairly well in the other two formats, and my next big challenge is to become a three-format player.”

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He plans to do that by sticking to the same basics but being more present than ever before. “Every level you go up there’s different challenges, but the fundamentals stay the same. Going into a Test match, that’s what I’m going to have to do. I’m going to have to be at my very best every moment and every ball that I’m out there; challenge myself every ball that I’m out there to be there for the next ball.”

He is also ready to bat in any position and the statistics show he could challenge for an opening spot. Van der Dussen has scored 5,351 runs in the top two at an average of 60.12, but he is most likely to step into the No.5 spot left vacant by the injured Temba Bavuma, which could allow him to be at his most expressive.

“For a long time in my career, I’ve opened the batting,” he said. “So I’m used to facing the new ball. But batting four, five in the middle order in the last two, three years has allowed me to open up my game, to be more attacking, and to transfer more pressure onto the bowlers, with the ball older and not doing as much. And maybe coming in and facing spin. I’d like to think that I’m adaptable.”

And what about the next 10 years? An international career that could carry him into his 40s is not out of the question but, given van der Dussen’s varied experience, don’t be surprised if he evolves into a coach in future. Time and Facebook will tell.