South Africa's red-ball batters are trying to make themselves as uncomfortable as possible as they prepare for their three-Test series in Australia next month. All the Test batters, with the exception of white-ball captain Temba Bavuma, who has been given time off, will play in at least one of the three rounds of domestic first-class matches taking place before the squad leaves in early December.
"The next three or four weeks is going to be about challenging ourselves outside of our comfort zones," van der Dussen told ESPNcricinfo at the launch of the SA20 league recently. "When you go to Australia, from a skill point of view, they have some of the best in the world. Their bowlers hardly bowl any bad balls and keep you under pressure. And then, from a pressure point of view, the media, the crowds, it's those kinds of things you need to expect when you go there, from what I have heard. So the next few weeks will be about pushing myself out of my comfort zone and making sure I address all those factors so, when I get there, I know I have done the hard yards and the uncomfortable yards in practice."
Van der Dussen, like most of the line-up barring captain Dean Elgar and Bavuma, has never played a Test match in Australia. South Africa have not toured Australia over the Christmas-New Year period since the 2008-9 season, when they won a series there for the first time. They have not lost a series in Australia since, but haven't played Tests there since late 2016.
That may suggest South Africa head to Australia with some advantage. But Australia are currently the top-ranked team on the World Test Championship (WTC) points table. South Africa sit second, and one of the main reasons for it has been their bowling unit. In the current WTC cycle, South Africa's attack has the best bowling average (22.98) and lowest strike rate among all teams, taking a wicket almost once every seven overs. Contrastingly, their batting has struggled. Only Bangladesh and West Indies have scored fewer runs than South Africa since July 2021, during which time South Africa have only crossed 300 five times in 19 innings, and gone past 400 just once. They have been bowled out for under 200 eight times and have the fewest number of centuries: two.
"Numbers-wise, we haven't done what we have wanted to, which is to score more hundreds and get the team to 400-plus, but the Test Championship table shows that we've done all right"
Rassie van der Dussen
Van der Dussen acknowledged that the numbers have not been up to standard, but he suggested that difficult conditions were somewhat to blame. "If you look at the averages of the batters, it's not up there. But you have to see the context, in terms of the conditions we've played in for the last two years - it's been very bowler-friendly. For example here (in South Africa) against India and in New Zealand and England.
"Numbers-wise, we haven't done what we have wanted to, which is to score more hundreds and get the team to 400-plus, but the Test Championship table shows that we've done all right. We're sitting second and we will definitely look to improve."
Asked if the line-up's inability to convert their starts into big scores was an indicator of a systemic problem, van der Dussen moved to quell serious concerns. "I am not worried. I know what we are about as a batting unit. I refer to some characters and backgrounds. I know the types of people we have in our batting line-up and the resilience we've shown," he said. "There's got to be a time when it's going to click. We've got to keep doing the same things in training, keep doing the hard yards and the uncomfortable work and we've got to believe we are one innings away from your next big innings."
It feels like the idea of runs being just around the corner is a line South Africa consistently use. It was used when asked about South Africa's dearth of hundreds or more recently, Bavuma's form in T20 cricket and specifically at the recent World Cup. After missing South Africa's tour to England because of an elbow injury, Bavuma returned to score 70 runs in five World Cup matches, the least among South Africa's specialist batters, and with the lowest strike rate, apart from Tristan Stubbs (31 runs in four matches at a strike rate of 100.00).
Van der Dussen backed Bavuma, and said strike rate could be over-rated at international events, where temperament was more important. "In domestic tournaments, strike rate, boundary count is a big thing. But sometimes the value of a calm head gets overlooked. I think people make too much of it at international cricket," he said. "In domestic leagues, it's a big thing, people want to see sixes being hit and a lot of action but when the pressure is on in an international tournament, I believe we need guys with calm heads and clear thoughts."
That's what van der Dussen hoped that the likes of Bavuma, Elgar and he would provide to a Test squad that heads to Australia without their No.3, Keegan Petersen, who tore his hamstring in the domestic T20 competition. They also have an interim coach, Malibongwe Maketa, following Mark Boucher's departure. They have added two back-up batters in Heinrich Klaasen and Theunis de Bruyn, who have 13 Test caps between them but have been playing professionally for a decade and eight years respectively.
"If you look at the squad, we have guys who have been seasoned domestic cricketers for years and years," he said. "It's guys who have been around the block, maybe not in terms of number of Test matches played but we are hardened first-class cricketers and we are going to lean on that going to Australia. We hardly have any youngsters in the batting line-ups so it's up to us to step up."
Klaasen, Elgar and wicketkeeper-batter Kyle Verreynne all warmed up with centuries in last week's round of fixtures, where van der Dussen made his comeback. He scored 45 and 10 in his first match back and his progress is on track for the first Test in Brisbane which starts on December 17. "I've been batting for the last four weeks and I've been back to facing full bowlers for the last two weeks. It went better than I expected."
He was also aiming to get his white-ball place back after missing the T20 World Cup as he recovered from a broken finger, and would be in action for MI Cape Town in the SA20 before pushing for a place in South Africa's ODI squad. "I like to think I will be back in the mix, seeing that I am fit again now," he said. "I love white-ball cricket and I love the challenge of T20, and the tactical and strategic part of T20."