Match Analysis

Rilee Rossouw rebuilds his burnt bridges with innings of World Cup pedigree

Five-and-a-half years after Kolpak deal, hard-hitting No.3 is already making up for lost time

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Rilee Rossouw produced a fine performance to confirm his return to South Africa's ranks  •  Getty Images

Rilee Rossouw produced a fine performance to confirm his return to South Africa's ranks  •  Getty Images

David Bowie's "Under Pressure" reverberated over the PA system at Sophia Gardens as Rilee Rossouw prepared to face the final ball of South Africa's innings. In one sense, it was a fitting choice - on 96 not out, he needed four runs to reach a maiden T20 international hundred - but Rossouw had already grasped a second chance that must have seemed far-fetched even to him.
Rossouw swung and missed at Chris Jordan's wide yorker and threw his head back in frustration but as he walked back to the dressing room, congratulatory back-pats from David Miller and Mark Boucher, his captain and coach, served as evidence of the fact that he had already done the hard work. His 55-ball innings set up South Africa's 57-run win to square the series ahead of a decider at the Ageas Bowl on Sunday, and went a long way to securing him a spot on the plane to Australia for October's T20 World Cup.
It was January 2017 when Rossouw decided not only to burn every bridge with Cricket South Africa, but to pour on a gallon of petrol, tuck the extinguisher under his arm and direct the fire brigade away from the blaze. "We got an email from him off his iPhone telling us he's signed Kolpak," Russell Domingo, South Africa's then-coach, said. "He spelt my name wrong for starters. He wrote one 'L' instead of two. That's where we are."
Rossouw's decision to sign a contract with Hampshire as a local player through the Kolpak loophole, thereby turning his back on South Africa, went down terribly. He had been supported through various injuries and backed to the hilt by the team's management, even after a run of five ducks in his first 10 ODI innings. "If that had been a player of colour, everyone would have said 'transformation'," Domingo said.
But since the UK's departure from the European Union, effectively bringing Rossouw's three seasons at Hampshire to an end since he had not scored enough runs for them to be kept on as an overseas player, he has been plotting a route back. He has been a regular at the BPL and PSL and after returning to South African domestic cricket, his runs for Multan Sultans and then Somerset this year were enough to force the selectors' hands.
In fact, he had been in such good form for Somerset - he averaged 47.92 while scoring at a strike rate of 192.28, finishing the season as the T20 Blast's second-highest run-scorer - that he admitted to feeling "overconfident" on his comeback in Bristol on Wednesday night, when he dropped a catch and then sliced Reece Topley to deep third for 4.
In Cardiff, Rossouw was sublime. He played second fiddle to Reeza Hendricks early on, easing to 20 off 18 balls, but from the moment he launched Adil Rashid's googly over long-off and into the River Taff, he was off: he played with bowlers' lengths, twice feinting to scoop before standing tall and belting them down the ground. His deft steer for four off Jordan, finding a barely-existent gap between backward point and short third, was the shot of the night.
He offered one half-chance on 37, when gloving Jordan down the leg side only for replays to suggest that Jos Buttler had taken the catch on the half-volley. "I thought I got it, but obviously the people who matter didn't," Buttler said. He also managed to scoop a ball into his own throat while falling over towards the off side, and though he admitted to feeling "dizzy" during the post-match presentations, was cleared of concussion.
"I've got six years of experience around the world, playing in different competitions," Rossouw said. "I do feel like I'm a much better player than I once was. It was special. I'm grateful for where I am right now. For me, today was a very emotional day - very emotional, and very proud."
That pride will leave South African fans with mixed emotions. "Representing your country is the proudest thing that anyone can do," Rossouw insisted - so why did he turn his back on them for such a long time?
As with most Kolpak players, the answer lies in the financial security that county cricket offered and the earning opportunities that presented themselves in the off-season while he might otherwise have been on national duty. "I don't see it as a free shot," Rossouw said. "Since Brexit happened, I've put in some really good performances and the management has backed me and selected me."
But those years are now seen as water under the bridge: Wayne Parnell is running the drinks in this series, while Duanne Olivier and Simon Harmer will join up with the Test squad in two weeks' time with their severed ties quietly stitched back together. Rightly or wrongly, the team's focus is on the promise of the future, not the damage of the past.
In Rossouw's case, that means the World Cup later this year, and locking himself in at No. 3 after several years as one of the world's most prolific players in his role - a left-handed middle-order batter who can take down spin. "You have to have self-belief first before someone else can see it," he said. "We're putting in some good performances and the sky is the limit for us." As Bowie and Queen had it, this is Rossouw's last dance.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98