Rudolph returns to where revitalisation began
If you didn't know better, you'd think Jacques Rudolph was a Yorkshireman. When he walked into Headingley, the head steward said hello, the receptionist greeted him by name and a staff member asked him when he was coming through to have a chat. He obliged as soon as he was done with his media arrangements.
Rudolph behaves like a local in Leeds because for five years, that is what he was. Rudolph and his wife, Elna, lived in the city from 2006 to 2010. It became so much their home away from home that they considered making it their permanent abode and even though they ended up back in South Africa, they maintain close ties with friends they made here.
"I share a lot of sentiment with this place," Rudolph said, with a smile that spoke volumes of his contentment to be back. "I have some fond memories of playing with some really good people and we've made some really good friends over here."
A significant part of Rudolph's fondness for Yorkshire stems from how the club helped him resurrect what was then a flagging career. Rudolph was dropped from the South African side after a poor nine months in 2006, when he made just one score over 50 in 14 innings.
In some ways, it was an end to a period that was destined to be tough from its beginnings. Rudolph was only 20 years old when his Test debut was postponed because of politics in 2001. Instead of play in the starting XI against Australia, Percy Sonn, then president of the South African board, insisted that Justin Ontong, a coloured, play instead.
Rudolph only got his turn two years later and scored an unbeaten 222 against Bangladesh. Despite four more centuries in the three years that followed, he was shuffled around the batting order so much that he was never allowed to establish himself and his stint eventually became forgettable.
Confused and somewhat disillusioned, Rudolph walked away from everything that frustrated him in cricket. He took up a county deal with Yorkshire, an indication that he had abandoned any hope of representing South Africa and tried his best to move on.
"When I decided to come over here, I was in a bit of a tough place in my career and I needed to rediscover my love of the game," he explained. "I wasn't too sure what my future would hold in South African cricket and at the time, I considered staying here in England."
With a cricket culture that embraced, rather than dictated to him, Rudolph found himself developing as a batsman in ways he did not think were possible. "I've made good friendships with people like Anthony McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Vaughan and it was nice for me as a younger player to learn from them," he said. "I was thrown into international cricket at a very young age and didn't always know how to cope with things so it was nice to be in surroundings which made it a little bit easier to learn more about myself and become more mature as a batsman."
Rudolph scored over 1,000 runs in the four seasons he played for Yorkshire and enjoyed great success at the club's home ground as well. There he scored 1,701 runs at an average of 48.60 in 25 matches, including five centuries and a career-best of 228 not out. He became embedded in the club and formed part of its core after Vaughan's retirement, which is why they offered him a contract extension and expressed great sadness when he asked to be released from it.
Conducting a marriage and a life across two continents had simply become too taxing, especially because Elna was trying to kick-start her career as a doctor. "After three or four years we just decided that it's difficult from a family point of view to stay over here and we decided to go back," Rudolph explained. "It was tough going back and forth all the time and I had to take my wife's career into consideration as well."
Success meant Rudolph had re-entered the South African radar. He maintains that he was not contacted by the national selectors - "if players get promises, that's a very nice position to be in but I don't think they do" - but re-entered the circuit at a good time. Neil McKenzie had been dropped during the series against Australia in early 2009, Ashwell Prince did not make any secret of his dislike for opening the batting and JP Duminy's blistering start to his career had stuttered.
South Africa needed a stable presence in the line-up and after his first season back in the country, Rudolph proved he was it. "There was a natural progression from there on. Fortunately I scored some runs and here I am today," he said. The sum he spoke of was 954 runs in the 2010-11 season, at an average of 59.62, with four hundreds and three fifties. He topped the first-class rankings and, by sheer weight of runs, forced his way back in.
Rudolph did not succeed as an opener on his comeback and was moved down the order to No. 6 after four Tests. There, he has scored one century and he now has a marginally higher average, 37.90 compared to 36.21, than he did in his first stint as an international cricketer. He insists he has never felt better about his game and that there is much more to come from him.
There would be no better place to open the run-scoring tap than his adoptive home, which he says hosted "five of the most memorable years of my career." He is careful to add "thus far" in case it gives him another treasured memory in the next week.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent