From despair in Centurion to determination at the Wanderers and a dream come true at Newlands, South Africa have reinvigorated themselves as a Test team after beating India 2-1. Rassie van der Dussen was at the heart of the action and featured prominently in both successful chases. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo about the challenges of batting in South Africa, the myth of measuring success in hundreds, the dismissal he didn't review, the banter and the way forward.
What were your expectations going into the series and did it end up playing out that way?
We knew they [India] were going to come in full of confidence. The only disappointment we have as a team was day one at Centurion. We lost the toss, they batted first and we just weren't up to the task. That's the only day we lost by very far. There were other days that were tight, where we won by a small margin and they won by a small margin, but in the end, we lost that day too far to get back into the match. I'm not looking for excuses, but we hadn't played red-ball cricket for six months. Some people said after the World Cup we should have played some four-day cricket but the schedule was as such that the few days we had at home was quite vital, in terms of the mindset of the guys. From there, I thought we were brilliant. And also losing Quinny [Quinton de Kock]. We knew he wasn't going to play the last two Tests but hearing about his retirement was a big blow. Maybe India saw that as an opportunity for them to get one over us. The way the guys responded was brilliant.
How difficult was it to bat on the surfaces you were given?
It was tough. Definitely the toughest conditions I've batted on in my life. Most of the guys have said that. There were two world-class bowling attacks, which plays a part but the conditions in all three Tests, you just never felt you were in and you could bat with real confidence. A guy like Keegan Petersen was unbelievable in the way that he played, especially in the last Test. It was quite draining. It was a grueling Test series. It never lets you go. Every moment, every ball, every session, every day seemed to get bigger as the series went on. When you get on the bus, and you're thinking about this and that and what-if and what must we do tomorrow. At night, you try to switch off but you're thinking tomorrow is such a big day. If we can just do this right, it can put us in a good position. It was three-and-a-half weeks full on, it was quite grueling from a mental point of view.
Given that there were only two hundreds in the series, and none by South Africa, would you say that centuries are not necessarily the only measure of success for batters in this country?
We all know that if you score big you are putting your team in a good position to win the game. But the pitches we've had here, while I'm not criticising them at all, it's just that you can do everything right on the day and still get a ball that gets you out. Look at a guy like Ajinkya Rahane in the last Test and his two dismissals. Technically he didn't do anything wrong. It just happens that way. Sometimes you look at conditions - like sometimes in the subcontinent, it's flat to bat. And maybe New Zealand, the wicket they played Bangladesh on, they scored 400 and maybe Bangladesh scores 400, but that's just not the nature of Test cricket in South Africa. You've got to look at it in context. Other teams' batters are averaging 45 or 50. If you're going to play the majority of your Test cricket in South Africa, I'm not convinced that that's necessarily the yardstick you must measure yourself by. A 30 or a 50-run partnership for us in this series was massive. You get to a 50-run partnership and you know you've worked really hard to get there. You might have just scored 20 yourself but that partnership is so vital in the match. Those smaller contributions are so much more vital. Hundreds are not necessarily the deciding factor in a Test, it's how you bat as a unit.
"We as a team would never act like that. Yes, there's emotions and everything involved on the field. But the umpire's call is final and even more so these days with technology so you trust."
van der Dussen on DRS drama in Cape Town
So you're not too unhappy with not reaching any personal milestones yourself in this series?
After the first Test and getting out in the first innings at Wanderers, I was under pressure. As a No.4 batter, you need to make runs. There's no two ways about it. I knew I hadn't contributed like I wanted to. Luckily, I've played a lot of cricket at the Wanderers and coming out in that second innings, I knew if you go too much into survival mode, you are going to get out. You need to put bowlers under pressure. You need to be really definite in terms of your movements and your game plans and still show a little bit of aggression and try to get the bowlers out of their game plans. A guy like [Shardul] Thakur, if you just allowed him to bowl his length, it was almost impossible to score without taking a big risk. If that guy was honing in on that spot, and to his credit, he did, you needed to find a way to try and put him under pressure and try and get him out of that. The way Temba [Bavuma] went out in the first innings, it maybe looks bad, he walked into his channel and then he gets nicked off down leg but the thinking is I can't let this guy settle because the way the pitches are, I am probably going to get out at some stage anyway. I am glad for the two innings that I could contribute. It was quite pressurised chases and I really wanted to make a contribution. It's maybe not the weight of runs I normally would expect myself to get but in the context, it was pretty important.
I have to ask you about the Wanderers first innings dismissal. Did you think you were out?
I saw afterwards people were quite critical saying that's why reviews are there but I never saw the catch being taken. I knew I got bat onto it, it went onto my pad and the next moment, I heard celebration. I didn't know where the ball was. You get an inside-edge, you are looking for the ball, you don't know where it went. Somehow it went straight back [to the keeper], I don't know how that happened. By that time, I saw the celebration and I looked up to Marais [Erasmus] and he had given me out. I had no reason in my mind to think I should refer it, because in my mind the catch had been taken cleanly and I knew I got bat on it and I was out. It was only when I got into the change room and I saw the replays but then it's too late. It's easy to say that the umpires should have, maybe because the nature of the catch and how it looked, should have said let's have a look upstairs. That was quite disappointing especially coming off two innings in Centurion where I didn't contribute. It did feel a bit like I don't know what to do here. I'm giving it my all and it's not clicking. Umpires are human, they make mistakes. Their argument was that even if they did check it, they would have given it out. That's what they said afterwards.
And that seemed to start a bit of banter that lasted through the rest of the series. What was your experience of that?
I enjoyed it. By nature, I am quite competitive. Growing up in a club cricket system in Pretoria, which is very hostile in terms of verbals, I've never been one to shy away from a bit of banter. The Indians called it sledging. I would never call it that. These days with cameras and stump mics, we don't really know what sledging is but I did enjoy it. I'm always the type of guy - I play hard on the field. I'm obviously never going to be personal. It was a moment of me asking Rishabh [Pant] a few questions. Maybe he didn't enjoy it too much. I'm not sure why. But there was certainly no hostility from my end. Maybe the way he took it - offence is taken and not given. I was at a nice position at short leg. I had access to him in that sense. And I could ask him a few questions. There was never any hostility. And from there, it just sort of blew up. When I went out to bat, they reciprocated quite nicely. It's part of the game. It's Test cricket. It's tough out there, and everyone's trying to level basically to gain an inch.
For me, the goal there is to try and get a guy out of his mental comfort zone and for a few seconds just to think about something else that he probably maybe shouldn't think about or that he wouldn't normally think about when he's playing well. That's the sort of chess game that you play out there. And then that Wanderers Test I think, maybe I got that right. I don't know if he would have played that shot if I wasn't there or if I didn't say anything. I know by nature he is that sort of player. In hindsight, it actually worked out very well for us, because I think that was a massive moment in the Test series for sure.
As a changeroom, we did get that feeling, yes. And like Dean [Elgar] also said in his interviews for half-an-hour after that, it felt like they forgot about what they actually needed to do, their actual plans fell away and sort of got stuck in that moment that went against him and allowed him and Keegan to score quite freely. In a tricky chase like that, it was massive. We as a team would never act like that. Yes, there's emotions and everything involved on the field. But the umpire's call is final and even more so these days with technology so you trust. That's the rules. That's the playing conditions. We all abide by it. We definitely got that sense, as soon as that happened, and the way they reacted and the way they allowed it to affect them was again a massive moment in the series. I think Dean and Keegan did brilliantly to capitalise on that. They said, they could feel it out there, they realised that this is a moment and let's make sure we use it to our advantage.
That was a second successful chase in the series, how much belief did the Wanderers chase give you ahead of the decider?
We definitely thought we could chase 240 at the Wanderers. If we had to chase 280-plus, it's a very different chase. With a target of 240 as a batting unit, you know, if there's certain things that we can tick, then we'll probably chase and it doesn't matter what the situation or the conditions are. If we can get an opening stand of about 40, if we can get another partnership of about 50 and if we can have one guy bat deep and get an 80-plus you put the odds in your favour. We did that. There was a moment where I went in and if Dean and myself are in overnight, it makes your odds so much better. I was on 11 not out off about 50 balls or something, but the runs were not really the currency in that last hour, it was more a case of we go into the final day, two down, they're up against it. That's the structure that you chase any score really, in any format. You plan it and you know, if you do these things right, you're going to give yourself a good chance. You break it down in a simple structure.
Which attack would you rather face - South Africa's or India's?
Theirs. I think our attack was brilliant. Maybe it's just the fact that the guys know how to bowl here. This Cape Town pitch was a bit of an anomaly. I've never really seen it like this, but I can speak for the Highveld. The guys know which lengths to bowl and which lengths are tough to score against. Our guys knowing that and staying in that and being disciplined in that makes it look really tough to bat against them. A guy like Shami who is so good in holding the channel, at some stages, it felt like he was looking to get you out and then it gave you an opportunity to score. The key on those wickets is just to stay disciplined, because you know, it's almost impossible to score and it's very easy to get out.
What's next for you as a Test cricketer?
As a No. 4 batter you must make runs and you must make hundreds. I've played 13 Tests and I don't have a hundred yet. It's the obvious thing. I do think about it and I hope that I still do get the opportunity to get there. And if I get there, I hope it is a really match-winning performance. At this stage, if you asked me if I wanted to score a hundred in the series or win the series, I'd say definitely win the series rather. I've always been that sort of player. I would hope to think that the smaller contributions that I did make also went a long way. I'd like to be the guy that contributes in a high-pressure chase and be the guy that's there at the end and makes sure we don't give the opposition anything. But your currency in batting is runs and milestones and that's not something that you can sweep under the rug. It is something that I need to do.
I think there's a lot of good people in South African cricket now. I can only speak from where we are as a team, there's gonna be some growing pains, there's going to be some miscommunication because there's a whole new board, and it's going to take some time to find each other. I honestly feel that everyone involved now has cricket in South Africa as the forefront of their priorities and the well-being of cricket and the well-being of the national teams and the franchise teams.
Do things feel better than they did a year ago?
Yeah, I think so. A year ago yes, we played Sri Lanka and beat them quite easily but we always expected to do that in our conditions then we went to Pakistan which was a tough tour. In West Indies, I felt it was a start of something that we can really do some big things. We showed some signs there, especially in our bowling that was really encouraging. Coming into this, after that first day it was almost like people are saying, 'Oh but this was expected.' It's the No.1 team in the world, they are experienced, they are littered with superstars. But the more the days went on, as we come back, the belief slowly started getting there. We showed signs that we are on a level par with these guys, we are competing and we competed throughout. Our character and Dean and Temba and [Mark] Boucher's characters of staying in the fight, take it to them, don't give an inch - that is one of the characteristics that came through in the series. We stayed in the fight longer, we applied pressure for longer and we absorbed pressure for longer. In the end that's probably what the difference between the two teams was.
It's a process, it's not overnight when a new coach comes in and new staff. It's a process and you've got to allow time for guys to buy into the process and start trusting the process.
A big thing also, from a batting side, is the inclusion of Justin Sammons as our batting consultant. He is the best batting coach I've worked with in my life and the other guys are also starting to see that and see the value that he adds. In two high-pressure chases that we actually, on paper, got quite comfortably, you can't underestimate the value that the batting coach and the coaching staff in general has put into that.
Before the series, Dean Elgar said one of the hardest things over the last two years was seeing how much the coaching staff was criticised, and that the administrative upheaval meant the players sometimes didn't even know who the suits are. What's your take on that?
I think there's a lot of good people in South African cricket now. I can only speak from where we are as a team, there's gonna be some growing pains there's going to be some miscommunication because there's a whole new board, and it's going to take some time to find each other. I honestly feel that everyone involved now has cricket in South Africa as the forefront of their priorities and the well-being of cricket and the well-being of the national teams and the franchise teams. It's a process of different spheres of an organisation finding each other and working together. We can only speak as players about our coaching staff. I can honestly say that I think we have some of the best staff in the world; the most hardworking staff in the world. They prioritise us as a team and winning as a team and winning in the right way. That means acting in a right way, in a respectful way, in an honourable way, keeping the humility, whether we win or lose. Everyone really has those values at the forefront and as a team, it's starting to show.
What are you looking forward to from the white-ball matches?
There's also been some great strides, if we look at the T20 World Cup and the way we played there. This series is going to be tough because they will want to come back from losing a Test series I am 100% convinced they didn't expect to lose. We know it's going to be tough but the vibe in the squad is very positive. We have some superstars, like Quinny and KG [Rabada], but it's almost like we are moving away from that because we are focusing on how to win as a team and what the role is of all the 11 individuals, not just the one guy who can be a match-winner on the day. We're looking at how the whole engine works together and understanding how to win, how to chase scores, how to bat at the death, how to bowl in the middle, how to bat in spinning conditions like we did in Sri Lanka, how to take the powerplay on, and really put emphasis on being aggressive up front like we did in West Indies, so all those different things. The end goal is to get to a point where it doesn't matter what the conditions, what the opposition is, we know, if we play a certain way, and we execute, then we're giving ourselves the best chance to win consistently.