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Rassie van der Dussen: ‘I don’t think anyone can replace AB, but I can be the best version of Rassie’

by Rohit Sankar 6 minute read

After 10 years of toil on the domestic circuit, Rassie van der Dussen was told in very clear terms that he had “nothing to prove” when he walked into the South African side. He speaks to Rohit Sankar.

If you happen to walk around Highveld, Centurion, it’s very likely that you’ll run into Abantu Coffee. A coffee shop run by Rassie van der Dussen and his friend, and now developing into a chain, the tagline of the business is as simple as the man himself: “Easy drinking, quality coffee. That’s all”.

Van der Dussen is excited as he talks about his side-venture that he one day hopes will serve coffee in the South African dressing room. Asked what got him into the business, Rassie has a very straightforward answer – “I drink a lot of coffee, it was a natural business to get into.”

Everything’s not as easy as it sounds, though. On the morning of March 12, 2021, van der Dussen got a distress call from one of his employees. He was stabbed under a bridge, deeply wounded and on the “brink of death”. Calling the employee a close friend, van der Dussen describes how the incident opens your eyes to what really matters in life. Quoting one of his former teammates and fellow Protea Pieter Malan, van der Dussen says that “facing the next ball isn’t pressure, but getting through the daily struggle of life sometimes is”.

Seven months on, van der Dussen is locked up in a hotel room in the UAE but in a better space as he prepares to bring glory to his country at the T20 World Cup. He faces a difficult task. South Africa are massive underdogs and the build-up to their campaign has been less about the players on the park and more about those off it. Faf du Plessis, despite his IPL heroics, has missed the cut; AB de Villiers’ potential return was ruled out back in May.

“Look, AB [de Villiers] is a hero to all of us,” says van der Dussen, speaking to Wisden.com ahead of South Africa’s tournament opener against Australia. “Whenever you follow a guy like that into the team, there’s a certain amount of responsibility and expectation that comes with it. But, I’ll stick to the same answer I gave two years back: I don’t think anyone can replace AB. However, I can be my own version. I can be Rassie. The best version of Rassie.”

That should be good enough going by the evidence from the Tolerance Oval at Abu Dhabi last week when van der Dussen’s incredible hundred helped South Africa overcome Pakistan in a successful run-chase that at one stage looked improbable.

Reduced to 36-2 in the powerplay and chasing 187 for a win in the World Cup warm-up fixture, van der Dussen took the game deep and with South Africa needing 37 from three overs, exploded, smashing four sixes and three fours and racing from 64 off 39 to record 101 not out off 51. As fans wondered how South Africa had pulled off that win, van der Dussen casually walked back to standing applause from his teammates.

An aggressive mindset helps when it comes to such scenarios. While the T20 World Cup is set to be defined by slow, sluggish wickets and an absence of gargantuan totals, van der Dussen is still looking to inflict some real damage.

“It’s about getting the basics right, but also hitting boundaries and finding boundary options,” van der Dussen says. “Strike rotation and working on manoeuvring the gaps is important, but having those low risk boundary options, especially against spin and in the middle overs, is a massive thing. To make sure you are technically equipped to hit a six in a pressure situation, when you really need to hit a boundary.

“The quicks will also come with a lot of slower variations on these wickets. I have just been working on ensuring I have different boundary options. It’s not about going at just six an over. Just making sure you can hit those boundaries consistently even if the bowlers keep bowling on good spots, finding areas and accessing different spots in the field.”

Having gone through the hard grind of domestic cricket for nearly a decade before getting his opportunity with the South Africa squad, van der Dussen has shown he has it in him to do special things with the bat at the highest level. Since making his international debut in 2018, he’s racked up an average of 65.56 in ODIs after 29 games, a T20I strike-rate in the mid-130s and a growing Test reputation, making him one of the most reliable batters in the country.

“Having that experience, having played 10 years of domestic cricket, it definitely helped me coming in. I knew I was in the right place at the right time. All those disappointments along the way, I could really appreciate where I was. Within 3-4 months I was in the [2019] World Cup squad playing with some of those big names. International cricket is not a finishing school, and I feel it helped me to have that sort of [domestic] experience.”

The batter also gives huge credit to du Plessis for his seamless integration into international cricket. The skipper of the South African side when van der Dussen came into the setup, du Plessis calmed the newcomer down, stating he did not have to prove himself to anyone.

“The biggest guy who influenced me on an individual level was Faf,” van der Dussen says. “When I got into the team, he approached me and let me know that the team knew what I was capable of doing. He told me that there was no need for me to think that I had to prove myself after what I had done at the domestic level. He conveyed to me that ‘Everyone here knows what you can do. We know what you are worth’.

“For him to say that when I was coming into the squad, under a bit of pressure, was massive. I realised that I am one of them and I could focus on playing and winning games for the country. There are those legends in the team, but I am one of them now and they trust and see me as a teammate. That confidence was massive for me.”

Du Plessis may no longer be in the South African picture, but van der Dussen is confident that the current group of players has it in them to make the country proud. While Temba Bavuma is still learning the ropes of captaincy, van der Dussen believes that the team has one captain and several leaders.

“I know [Bavuma’s] pedigree; his tactical awareness is brilliant. Currently, the team has a few natural leaders, people Temba can feed off. I think we work well together. In the last one year, the whole batting unit put a lot of emphasis to upskilling ourselves in conditions that aren’t similar to those in South Africa. We went to the West Indies where the wickets were slow and low. We beat them there. The Sri Lanka series was massive for us. Beating them in those conditions was a massive boost for us.”

The World Cup is here and despite series wins over West Indies and Sri Lanka earlier this year, South Africa are up against it in landing a semi-finals spot, particularly after a narrow defeat to Australia in which van der Dussen scored 2. But prior to that loss, the 32-year-old spoke of “something special brewing” amidst the chaos. After his outrageous hundred in the Pakistan heist, he could still be right.

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