The dark clouds of decline have gathered and the warnings of a West Indies-style tumble into mediocrity have gone from rumbling in the distance to thundering directly overhead. Lightning has struck South Africa twice as they have, for the second time since readmission, been defeated in three successive Test series by the same sequence of opponents. Sri Lanka, India, and England have rained runs on South Africa while their own batsmen experience droughts and have plucked wickets like flowers while the Proteas wilt. The storm in CSA's offices rages on but even in all this, there is a silver lining.
At 6ft 1in, with a receding hairline and a toothy grin, Rassie van der Dussen is one of only two players (Anrich Nortje is the other) who has not taken the weather with him in the last 12 months. Instead, he has charted his own course into the sunlight and has spent his first full year as an all-format international basking in it.
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He is the only batsman in cricket history to have made scores of 50-plus on debut in all three formats (albeit the history of T20 internationals is a short one) and the only South African to score seven fifties in his first 14 ODI innings. Only six other players have done that worldwide, among them names like Jonathan Trott and Imam-ul-Haq, whose career averages sit among the best of all time.
Van der Dussen doesn't appear on that list yet because it only considers players who have batted in a minimum of 20 innings but if he keeps going at the current rate of 73.77, he will find himself there soon. And there's good reason to believe he will. In what we've seen of him in 50-over cricket, van der Dussen is a well-organised player who has been good against pace (348 runs at 58.00) and spectacular against spin (316 runs at 105.33), though it is worth mentioning that he has not faced slow bowling on the subcontinent yet. He has also filled the role of finisher for South Africa, with five not-out scores and three of them not out half-centuries.
In the recently completed Test series against England, van der Dussen, in his debut rubber, was South Africa's second-highest run-scorer, behind Quinton de Kock, making half-centuries in three of the four Tests, one of which was achingly close to being converted into a maiden hundred. Perhaps more important than the runs, was the price van der Dussen put on his wicket. He faced an average of 81.3 balls per dismissal. Only Pieter Malan faced more (88.3).
While van der Dussen's white-ball performances demonstrate his technical ability, his red-ball innings matched that with the temperament required to succeed in the toughest format. To have shown all that in just over a year of playing international cricket speaks to the grounding van der Dussen came in with, which includes more than a decade in the domestic set-up. But instead of thinking of him as a late-bloomer, we should consider van der Dussen an evergreen, camouflaged by the colours of those in green-and-gold around him, who was given a glimpse of a gap and wanted the full view.
After making his T20 debut in a series against Zimbabwe in 2018, van der Dussen made sure he stayed in the selectors' peripheral vision by finishing as the top-scorer in the inaugural edition of Mzansi Super League. That led to an ODI appearance in January 2019 and 93 on debut, along with two more fifties in the series against Pakistan. By the time South Africa played Sri Lanka in March, van der Dussen would have been fairly sure he was in their World Cup plans. But, he would probably not have been at the tournament if South Africa had accepted AB de Villiers' offer to return. He repaid the faith placed in him by finishing as South Africa's second-highest run-scorer, and the player who left with his reputation most enhanced.
Those performances were what led to van der Dussen hanging around the Test squad in the early stages of the India tour, even though he was not officially part of the group, and to his eventual call-up for the England matches. But who knows if he would have played at SuperSport Park if Temba Bavuma wasn't injured? And who knows if he would have continued playing if he hadn't scored 51 and shared in a match-winning second-innings partnership, when Bavuma recovered in time for the next game?
"He is one of the guys who needs to play for the next three, four years to get South Africa back to where they need to be" Faf du Plessis on van der Dussen
By the time Bavuma returned to form, van der Dussen had clocked two half-centuries and it was Zubayr Hamza, not him, who had to make way. In fact, van der Dussen was promoted to No. 3, away from his preferred position, and there, he showed his best so far. His 98 at the Wanderers was an innings of commitment to an impossible cause, with South Africa chasing 466 to win, and courage against an aggressive opposition attack. At one stage, van der Dussen was hit close to the sternum by a delivery that could have broken a rib - but he got back up and batted on.
"It would have been one of his greatest knocks," captain Faf du Plessis said after the match, musing about what a century would have meant for van der Dussen. Maybe it already was.
With or without the milestone, that innings showed us what du Plessis acknowledged about van der Dussen: he has what it takes and more. "Rassie's composure is what's needed for this level. That's why we backed him," du Plessis said. "He's one of the guys who are in the era of the 30-year-olds who need to play for the next three, four years to get the team back to where they need to be."
Similar praise was heaped on van der Dussen after the World Cup and it all suggests there may be bigger plans for him in the not-too-distant future. Van der Dussen's leadership qualities could put him in the perfect position to take the Test team to West Indies, should du Plessis step down before then, or to become Quinton de Kock's second-in-command in the ODI side, with the 2023 World Cup in mind. None of these roles should be considered too lofty for van der Dussen because he has already shown that he can fill big shoes.
Whatever transpires, van der Dussen now stands as a role-model for his peers across the cricketing spectrum. For aspirant internationals, he is proof that time in the domestic game, however long, is not time wasted. For experienced ones, he is a reminder not to take things for granted. And for everyone, he is the evidence that even in this dark time, as coach Mark Boucher called South Africa's current plight, there is some light.