Resolute Rassie van der Dussen plays forgotten hero amid Wanderers glory

His 40 was an important innings for South Africa and himself; it showed he can be a matchwinner

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Rassie van der Dussen's 40 is likely to be forgotten against the glory of Dean Elgar's unbeaten 96  •  AFP/Getty Images

Rassie van der Dussen's 40 is likely to be forgotten against the glory of Dean Elgar's unbeaten 96  •  AFP/Getty Images

Remember the last time South Africa attempted to break a record against India at the Wanderers?
It was in 2013, when they were chasing 458. Then, they had AB de Villiers in the XI, and his century and 205-run stand with Faf du Plessis threatened to make history. But the dismissals of those two batters - and the knowledge that just avoiding defeat was enough to keep the series alive - prompted South Africa to shut shop. In the end, they fell short by eight runs and settled for a draw.
More than eight years later though, they did not have that luxury. At 1-0 down in a three-Test series and on a ground where India had never lost before, a draw in Johannesburg could only mean the series could not be won; and given the amount of time left in the game when South Africa's second innings started, playing for anything other than victory would have backfired. But they did not have personnel like de Villiers and du Plessis. Instead, they had Rassie van der Dussen.
His 40 is likely to be forgotten against the glory of Dean Elgar's unbeaten 96 and the drama of the behind-the-scenes chat that sparked Kagiso Rabada to bowl with more fire. But it was an important innings nonetheless - for South Africa and for van der Dussen himself. It showed that he can be a matchwinner.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider the circumstances. van der Dussen was in to bat with an hour of play remaining on the third day and with South Africa on 93 for 2. The situation was as stable as a see-saw. In tough batting conditions against a world-class attack, one wrong move could have easily tilted the match trajectory India's way. For it to angle towards South Africa, it needed many correct moves. And van der Dussen was the person who had to pivot proceedings that way.
He was greeted by four close catchers - a slip, short leg, leg-slip and short midwicket - and R Ashwin. India had clearly done their homework. In his debut series, van der Dussen was dismissed at leg gully by England, steering a delivery off his toes to a fielder placed for exactly that shot. Later in the same series, he was caught at short leg off Joe Root. There was almost a third dismissal in that fashion when he inside-edged the third ball he faced in the second innings at the Wanderers, but it fell short of Cheteshwar Pujara at leg slip. That was a warning from India: they had identified one weakness.
Without being overly critical to van der Dussen, he has a few. He has been known to be vulnerable against inswing from the likes of Sam Curran and Hasan Ali, as also outside off stump. van der Dussen has been dismissed twice in his last three Tests while shouldering arms, first to Kemar Roach in St Lucia and then to Jasprit Bumrah in Centurion.
He was nearly unlucky for a third time, when he went forward to defend his 12th ball on Wednesday - off Ashwin - but chose not to offer a shot and was instead hit on the front pad. Fortunately for van der Dussen, there was no damage done. He went on to show good judgment against Shardul Thakur, who moved the ball slightly away from him, and Mohammed Shami, who seamed it in, and took South Africa to the close alongside Elgar. They had reached 118 for 2 - just about halfway to the target - but the real work lay ahead.
After rain washed out the first two sessions of the fourth day, South Africa resumed with 34 overs to bat. Given the state of their line-up in the last two years, one wicket could easily prompt a collapse, and when Bumrah began with a delivery that pitched on off and veered past van der Dussen's outside edge, the jitters began.
But van der Dussen was not going to be moved - especially after he walked in the first innings, and his dismissal became the subject of a consultation between Elgar and the umpires. Even more especially because there was some chatter between van der Dussen and the Indian players which did not look like a mere exchange of pleasantries. So he dug his heels in, even though he never really looked in and stuck with his captain.
There were very few pretty things about his 82-run stand with Elgar except that it kept South Africa together during the most crucial part of the chase. It was a partnership of defiance and determination. It whittled away at the target by squeezing the ball into gaps, running hard and believing. Eventually, it found some space to breathe, and van der Dussen was able to show off some of his leg-side game with well-timed flicks through square leg and one breaking-the-shackles ferocious pull off Shami.
At that stage, with under 100 to get, it seemed as though van der Dussen and Elgar would be in a race to reach personal milestones, albeit that they both prefer team accolades. In the end, neither got there. van der Dussen fell ten short of fifty, and when he was dismissed, South Africa still needed another 68. It was left to the leadership, Elgar and vice-captain Temba Bavuma, to finish the job. And that they did.
"It's always about the team over [individual] performance," Elgar said. "I was the person who got us over the line, but I am not going to exclude my team-mates from what they've done over the last few days."
Especially not van der Dussen. "I am glad for Rassie. I know he's been through a bit of a tough time," he added. "I think that the 40 that he scored is going to go a long way for his career. I don't think he realises that now but those kinds of moments build character, build personnel within your set-up and I just think from a character point of view, he's going to learn a hell of a lot."
Elgar's words of praise give van der Dussen's 40 the gravitas of a century, even though he has yet to register one in Tests. But there is time. He has only played 12 Tests and recorded six gutsy fifties. He went 21 ODIs and seven fifties before he brought up his first hundred in that format. Then, he said he felt "relief" after a two-and-half-year wait. There is an important lesson in that. It may be the pressure on players to rack up particular numbers is more important to everyone else, while for them, it is only about winning or losing. And maybe sometimes, breaking a record.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent