Jacques Rudolph April 28, 2011

The return of the other Jacques

He was South Africa's next big thing a decade ago before he fell off the radar and went off to play county cricket. Now Jacques Rudolph is back and is being talked up as one for the future again

Eden Gardens is probably the equivalent of Mecca for South African cricketers: the hallowed ground where they were welcomed back into international cricket after the apartheid years. Most regard playing at the iconic venue to be a dream come true. Jacques Rudolph is no different.

Rudolph was one of the lucky ones who was able to bring up a personal milestone, a half-century, in the Test he played there, his 18th. While Rudolph was toiling hard for 61, his wife, Elna, who had made the trip with him to the subcontinent, was working at Mother Teresa's hospice. Elna had finished a medical degree and was doing her internship at the time. She has since completed a Masters in Sexual Health and has a Higher Diploma in HIV/AIDS, her area of specialty.

"My wife gives me a lot of perspective about what's happening in the real world, so I don't get disillusioned by what's happening in the sporting world," Rudolph said.

Grounding is something every sportsman needs, but Rudolph, who had a dramatic first stint in international cricket, perhaps realises the importance of the occasional dose of reality better than most. He was a confident and settled batsman, with exceptional technique and strokeplay, and by the time of that Kolkata Test had racked up 1000 Test runs at an average of 43.81. The false start he had to his career in Australia in the 2001-02 season, when then South Africa board president Percy Sonn intercepted his debut and inserted Justin Ontong into the starting XI ahead of Rudolph, seemed to be behind him.

Then it all changed. In 17 Tests after that, Rudolph scored just one century. Hs average dipped below 30, he looked out of all sorts of things: depth, character, self-belief. It was the result of a head-on collision between becoming a national cricketer too early and not being nurtured properly once the fast-forward button had been pushed.

"In hindsight there was always the danger of getting picked for South Africa at a young age," Rudolph said. "You don't really know your game that well, you haven't really been exposed to pressure."

It's a fair point that youth thrust into greatness may be overwhelmed. The shaky ground on which the young Rudolph, then 21, was introduced onto the international stage laid a rickety platform for his ultimate slide.

Politics and South African sport have never been separated, and their relationship had one of its messiest spats down under during that tour. Some will argue that Sonn interfered in a merit selection, others will say that it was necessary to right historical wrongs, but few will disagree that it affected the careers of both players concerned. Rudolph and Ontong both stumbled through international cricket after that; ironically Rudolph found his feet better than Ontong, though he was not able to stand on them for any sustained period. "It made me a little insecure as a cricketer and as a person," Rudolph said.

He began to second-guess his own ability, and during his worst patch, a series in the West Indies, where in three matches he had scores of 0, 24, 8 and 7 not out, "didn't enjoy cricket at all".

After being dropped from the national team in August 2006, he signed a Kolpak deal with Yorkshire, packed up his life in South Africa and left. "I was looking for stability in my career," he said.

It was a difficult and controversial decision to make but Rudolph was vindicated almost immediately. "In my first game, which was at The Oval, I scored one of my better hundreds, against Surrey, and that took a lot of the pressure off." He scored two more centuries in his first month and settled into his new home and his quiet life without much fuss.

In the company of Younis Khan and Michael Vaughan, and with Geoffrey Boycott watching from the stands, Rudolph resolved to discover his own game. He found the environment "professional but laidback", the opposite to what he was used to in South Africa where things sometimes get too intense, too paraat - Afrikaans for "prepared".

Rudolph found himself easing into a schedule where the sheer of volume of cricket helped him mature. "I was able to cement my game, and my personality for that matter. I learnt that your preparation shouldn't change whether you are in good form or bad form. That's the success of someone like a Jacques Kallis or Hashim Amla. They always do the same thing. As a young player, if you go through bad form, you start hitting a thousand more balls a week. That's not necessarily the right answer."

"As a young player, if you go through bad form, you start hitting a thousand more balls a week. That's not necessarily the right answer"

Along with fine-tuning his art as a batsman in the longer version of the game, Rudolph also excelled in the shorter formats. "I feel people have had this perception that I'm only a Test player. My stats [average] in one-day cricket is 47-48, which tells me I can play the white-ball game."

While he was collecting runs, he was also racking up awards: he won the Players' Player of the Year and Fans' Player of the Year in 2008, and Players' Player again in 2010.

Another year at Yorkshire and Rudolph would have qualified to play for England, but Elna had business interests in South Africa and "going back and forth all the time was not worth our while", Rudolph said. "She wanted to start her own practice as well." At the beginning of the 2010 season, Rudolph returned to the Titans and was immediately named their captain.

What was striking about him was how much had changed in the interim. Confidence oozed where once was a broken man. Notable also was how much hadn't: the open, friendly, giving personality was the same. The runs flowed, in the SuperSport Series, where he topped the run charts with 954 runs in 10 matches; in the MTN40, where his 383 runs were scored at a strike-rate of over 100; and in the Pro20, where he was the second highest run-scorer. He recently captained South Africa A to an unofficial Test series win over Bangladesh and is currently captaining them in the one-day series.

There are signs that he is ripe for a national recall, perhaps even as the next ODI captain. "I'm 29. I'm at the top of my career, I feel. There's still potential to become better, but I'd like to think I'm at a stage where I know my game very well. If needed for the South Africa team in future, I'll definitely try to put my hand up."

Rudolph the run machine is back, and so is Rudolph the realist. He has already started thinking about what he will do when his cricket-playing days are over. He co-owns a farm just outside Kimberley with Boeta Dippenaar, where they breed roan antelope, sable and buffalo. The pair have someone running the farm for them, and although Rudolph thinks he won't be directly involved there for a while, he has set it up to prepare for "one of a sportman's biggest insecurities: the day I finish the game, what am I going to do?"

At the rate he is going, that day is a trip or two back to Eden Gardens away.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent