Ben Jones analyses two important innings for South Africa.
South Africa’s World Cup campaign is over. It was over a while ago. This match, for the Proteas, wasn’t about what happens in the next week. Like the best sport, it represented far more than simply what was happening on this given day; for South African cricket, today was about what happens in the next four years.
Faf du Plessis has had a good World Cup. He’s amassed 387 runs at slightly slower than a run a ball, in a tournament where runs have been surprisingly at a premium. He’s played with authority, and control; his false shot percentage is the fourth lowest of the tournament, for any team. He’s averaged a dash under 65. It’s hard to look at the fundamental numbers of his campaign and say he’s been anything other than top class.
If captaincy and leadership are about projecting calm, he’s done all he can to let his batting play a pivotal role in the way he’s skippered the side. Faf’s batting has not been destructive, but it’s been consistently calm. He played in that mould today, and about as well as that mould allows. Very little risk, plenty of assertive, confident batting, but never anything outrageous. Only two of the centuries we’ve seen in this tournament have been more secure.
There was a moment though today, in the 40s, when he gave himself away. A pair of crunching drives, dispatched with little to no fanfare, heralded by a tug of the shirtsleeves and a remarking of the guard, gave away a man who wasn’t calm. This was a fierce, driven kind of focus. For some reason, this one mattered more. Perhaps because it was the last innings of the World Cup. Perhaps, and you could feel it in the air, it was because it was his last innings, full stop.
Faf is a very cool man. That jawline, those biceps, that brooding alpha atmosphere which floats around him like a cloud of aftershave – he has a serious presence. His celebration was calmly alpha too, beating his chest, then arms aloft receiving the adoration that, perhaps, will have to last him for a fair few years into the future.
At the one end, we had the climax to a career, and at the other we had the beginning of something. Perhaps appropriately, to celebrate this century, Faf put his bat down. At the other end, Rassie turned his collar up.
In ODI history, nobody to play as many games as van der Dussen has had a higher batting average. It’s not the most analytical point, and is not really indicative of quality in any serious way, but it does illustrate that at the very least, van der Dussen is capable of making sizeable contributions.
His game against spin is also excellent. Slick and effective, his plan is straightforward – attack the bowler when the get their length wrong. As you can see, his boundaries against spin are from when the bowlers drops too short of lobs it up to full. A tall man, with long arms and surprising power, he is able to get good leverage on drag downs, and have a strong swing at half-volleys.
These are good fundamentals, but he is still establishing his reputation.One thing that was perhaps in doubt was van der Dussen’s ability to go through the gears and accelerate. It’s what differentiates the solid ODI anchors from the elite. Before today, he scored at roughly 5rpo after facing 60 balls in an innings, a worryingly low rate, but today he stepped up.
A few front foot pulls to the square boundary, a few elegant straight drives, and he was able to score at over 9rpo after that 60 ball marker. That’s proper. That’s ODI pace.
As a result, his innings today was slightly more than just the functional 95 (97) that the scorecard presents. The Impact of his innings, according to CricViz’s model, was to reduce South Africa’s score by 12 runs from what we’d expect had an average player been in his position. He scored runs solidly, but not spectacularly; he made a statement, but no an unequivocal one. There were a few too many hoiks landing safe, an unwelcome number of edges going awry, but this was a man in his 14th ODI innings taking his side to 300+ against a World Cup semi-finalist. He can’t prove everything in one go, but he’s earned his strokes of luck.
Yet it’s not reasonable to linger too much on today’s result. The future implications It was immensely frustrating at the time, but in a way it was fitting that he fell short of his first ODI century. In every sense, van der Dussen has work to do.
Four years isn’t a vast difference in age between two people. They probably grew up watching the same cartoons, listened to roughly the same music, had similar posters on their walls. It is not a generation. But it is a World Cup cycle. Du Plessis is four years older than van der Dussen, but it feels like in cricketing terms they are far wider apart.
The thing is, South Africa need to go through this squad with a nit comb. Tahir and Duminy have already retired, Faf, Amla and Steyn perhaps soon to follow them. But the others remain available, and optimistic of their hopes for selection. South Africa’s selectors need to make a call on a number of those men. Is Tabraiz Shamsi good enough for international cricket? Who, of Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo and Dwayne Pretorious, is actually the best option to be the all-rounder? There are a lot of big decisions to be made, tough calls on a number of careers that have limped along surrounded in a quality only just above mediocre. South Africa are in the midst of a talent drain. They need to work out the men they want to back, and back them.
Rassie van der Dussen is not a particularly fashionable cricketer. He’s not got the face of Faf, the elegance of Quinton, the fire of Kagiso. But he’s the foundation on which you could build a team. He won’t play 100 ODIs; he certainly won’t sustain the level of success he’s started his career with; it’s not guaranteed that he’ll sustain enough success to stay in the side. But he is a proper, modern orthodox batsman with discernible skills. He deserves to be at the core of the Proteas rebuild, because, quite frankly, few else do.
South African cricket is about two years from a crisis similar to that which engulfed West Indies cricket, the loss of talent to leagues around the world. The reasons for that are numerous, and not of interest here, but the fact of that talent drain is obvious. South African selectors are faced with a similar issue to their Caribbean colleagues, the unnecessarily high-pressure push to prioritise the right players, the right characters, the right personalities in an environment where every mistake is punished severely. Today showed that Rassie van der Dussen deserves to be one of those characters.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.