Jacques Rudolph's second coming
When Jacques Rudolph was recalled to the South African squad, it felt as though the sheer volume of voices speaking out in his favour was what carried him back in. In reality, the statistics probably provided the louder motivation - he was the leading run scorer in South Africa's first-class competition, the SuperSport Series, in the 2010-11 season - by some distance. Awash in runs, he also seemed to have completely recovered from the crash of confidence he suffered towards the end of his first stint when a long, dry spell cost him his place.
Rudolph has found sympathy which often translates into support from South African fans after his Test debut was denied twice. In November 2001, Rudolph was in the playing XI in the match was stripped of Test status because of the Mike Denness affair. Two months later in Sydney, he was listed on the South African team sheet but was removed at the request of Cricket South Africa's then-president Percy Sonn, who insisted that Justin Ontong - a coloured player - play instead. On his eventual debut, in April 2003, Rudolph scored an unbeaten 222 against Bangladesh, confirmation for many that he deserved his debut both times before.
A 14-month successful stint at the top soon whithered away. Rudolph's technique was tested by the rampant Australians in 2006 and Sri Lanka the same year. His habit of playing away from the body saw him get few too many edges and his insecurities grew.
When he was dropped, he took a decision to leave South African cricket altogether and accepted a Kolpak contract with Yorkshire, where his career blossomed. With fewer eyes on him, Rudolph had the freedom to develop and by the time he returned to his homeland he had more confidence in himself. He forced his way back into the national frame and was included under a weight of runs and popular opinion in the squad to play Australia and Sri Lanka.
Expectation was massive. When he didn't score enough, they were obvious concerns. His approach in five home Tests was out of sync with his approach as a cricketer to his personality outside of that. Rudolph was uber-aggressive, trying to score as quickly as he would have done in a one-day game. He played at everything, took needless risks and tried to impose himself on the game without reason.
Rudolph flattered to deceive in seven innings at the top of the order. In every one he got a start, a quickfire clump of runs that teased the eye, promising more but never delivering. He was out to careless shots, a top edge from an attempted swing over mid-wicket, a pull that he couldn't keep down off Thisara Perera. Rudolph admitted that in haste to prove himself once again, he made mistakes he should not have and he emphasised on shot-making, rather than time at the crease.
Another failure of sorts awaited him. With almost as many voices calling for him to be dropped, in light of Alviro Petersen's resurgence, Rudolph was dangerously close to the axe again. What happened was nowhere near as bad but it was still a defeat in a sense. He was moved down the order to No. 6, a position that is not his preferred one but he recognised it was a chance to continue playing international cricket. "It was a new challenge for me. I've been batting in the top three for 95% of my career and in South Africa, the wickets were not always easy to bat upfront," he said. "I was given a lifeline batting at No. 6 and I took it."
Whether it worked could not immediately be assessed. Rudolph's first opportunity to bat in his new home was on the flattest pitch the South African line-up had seen all summer. By the time he was able to test it out, Jacques Kallis was on his way to a double-century and when he was dismissed AB de Villiers came in to blitz away at his end. The friendly conditions and a weak Sri Lankan attack helped Rudolph work his way to a calmer half-century.
Bigger tests would come and they would start in New Zealand. Unlike most of the South African side, he had been to New Zealand before and was the batsman with the highest average in the country. "My game suits these wickets, they are a bit slower as well," he said.
In the first innings, he came in with South Africa in a tricky position, on 90 for 4 needing consolidation. He gave himself time to assess the barrage of short balls, before pushing a wide one through the covers. He squeezed out the yorkers and waited for the boundary ball, showing patience on a tricky pitch. He survived an lbw shout off Doug Bracewell, only because the bowler had overstepped when he was on 38.
Similarly in the second innings, Kallis convinced him to review a decision off Bracewell that replays showed had pitched just outside the leg stump. After that early wobble, the rest of Rudolph's innings was chanceless. He drove particularly well, timing his shots carefully on a sluggish outfield and took advantage of a vacant third-man region. Most importantly, he showed a patience that had been lacking from his game since his comeback.
"You've got to try and stick with one simple game plan," he said. "As soon as you start going after the ball, you will get yourself into trouble. You don't get good value for your shots. I had a checklist I wanted to go through and then also, it was important to leave well." The mental shift, something Rudolph feels he did not quite get right since his comeback, particularly against Australia at the Wanderers in November, has now kicked in and Rudolph hopes it can help establish himself in his new position for the foreseeable future. "I would never turn down the chance to open but right now, six is where I am comfortable."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent