As he hiked up mountains, descended waterfalls and cycled down slopes in Switzerland, Jacques Rudolph may have reflected on the path his international cricket career has taken, but more importantly, he was grateful to have it back.
The time the South African cricket team spent with explorer Mike Horn – a “madman”, says Rudolph – brought him closer to mates with whom he’ll be sharing the field in England over the next few days and weeks. What was past would be left in the past, what was to come had to be enjoyed.
Rudolph has known pain, great joy, more pain and confusion over the course of a Test career spanning 43 matches and nine years. He has given up international cricket to find contentment and come back to it in an attempt to find fulfilment. He is in England for his second tour with the national team, nine years after the first trip here. In between, England had been his home and in many ways it helped rekindle the enjoyment he had for cricket.
“I had an amazing time with Yorkshire, they were very good to me. I made some amazing friends, it’s almost like my home away from home,” Rudolph said of the four years he spent playing for one of the most storied cricket counties in England. He established numerous records, won over many hardy old Yorkshiremen, who don’t often take kindly to foreigners playing in their side.
“It’s not just (hard) for an overseas player playing county cricket, even if it’s just for a club, they always expect you to be the outstanding performer. That is something I tried to deal with very early on when I started. Fortunately it went well for me in my first season and that took quite a bit of pressure off coming back here, just replicating and then bettering my previous performances.”
Yorkshire allowed Rudolph to grow as a cricketer and as a person. “Naturally the progression for any cricketer, or for that matter any person, no matter what you do is the older you get, the more experience you get, the more knowledgeable you become.
“The fact that I played 26 first class matches in a season here as opposed to 10 back in South Africa fast-tracks your experiences. I’m 31 now and I’ve played more first-class matches than a Boeta Dippenaar who is four years older than me, because I played county cricket for so long. I got to understand my game a lot quicker.”
Rudolph gave up the Kolpak option in 2010 and quietly began making ripples on the South African domestic limited overs scene. An explosive start to the SuperSport Series last season forced Andrew Hudson and the selectors to pick him for the abbreviated series with Australia where the extra intensity of international cricket caught Rudolph somewhat off-guard. “The first five Tests in my comeback, I found it pretty difficult in the sense that the kind of wickets we were playing on were quite difficult. The scores suggested that, not just mine, other players too. And upfront, even more so.”
“Also, the fact that I really wanted to do well … I remember the Wanderers Test (against Australia last November), where I felt incredibly good, but I got ahead of myself because I so badly wanted to do well and then before I knew it I played a shot completely out of character and was out.
“I learnt a lot from that.”
Then followed a move to the middle order for Rudolph in just his fifth Test back in the side. One of the warriors who carved out success in England in 2008, Ashwell Prince, had lost his way and Rudolph was given another new lease on international cricket. “Moving from opening bat to No6 was something Gary (Kirsten) did, and for that reason I think he saw that I could fit into that role as well.”
It’s a move that has paid some dividends already, with a century in Dunedin earlier this year being Rudolph’s first since that memorable last day 102 in Perth seven years ago.
In what Rudolph believes will be bowler-friendly conditions for the series with England, he is banking on the middle order to come good. “You have to sum up situations, you could come in at 20/4 and have to salvage the innings, or at 400/4 you have to play in a more attacking fashion. It’s a nice energy for me batting with the likes of AB and JP, who are attacking and busy players and the success for this Test series can hopefully revolve around us three in the middle period to either take games forward or stabilise situations.”
England’s success at home is something Rudolph has followed with interest from up close. “They’re methodical,” he said, “and, more than most teams, they understand their own conditions very well. The ball swings more here than anywhere else. Their batters are accustomed to it and their bowlers know how to bowl it.”
With South Africa placing so much emphasis on the mental side of their preparation for this tour – Horn’s camp had as much to do with toughening the brain as it did the legs – Rudolph feels they are ready to overcome adversity, having already been tested by what he described as the “traumatic” events that ended Mark Boucher’s international career. “I will definitely carry some sort of inspiration from the fact that Boucher’s not here, I know how hard he worked to be here.
Stuff like that, not to belittle it, but it really gels a team together, even more so when it happens to one of the senior men. Subconsciously, it has … and coming back to Switzerland, there was quite a bit of that and this may be the extra five to 10 percent glue that brings us closer together.”
He describes the current South African side as the closest unit he’s been a part of, which allows them to enjoy each other’s successes. “In my time playing for South Africa, and in fact most teams I’ve played in, this is one of the happier, most connected teams. Everyone gets along, which is lekker, we enjoy each other’s success, we fight hard through tough times and hopefully the stuff with Mark will come through in this Test series, when times are tough, we’re there for one another.”
Part of that enjoyment extends to the team bus on this tour, though Rudolph – a lover of 80s pop – would appreciate more A-ha and less Jay-Z over the speakers. “At the moment Rob Walter (fitness trainer) is in control of the iPod along with JP Duminy and there are six or seven of us continuously playing cards. It’s a lekker, joyful environment.”
Does an hour of the bus ride consist of 80s music? “I wish. JP will possibly play some Tupac, Kanye or Jay-Z,” remarked Rudolph with a smile. – The Star