Is Rassie van der Dussen South Africa’s new Graeme Smith?
banned for two years for his role in the fixing scandal than blighted South Africa’s domestic T20 competition the previous year. Phangiso? McKenzie? Cook? Excellent players. But, as captains, are they capable of shaping the next generation of leaders? And who, exactly, is Brett Pelser?
In 2007 Durban-born, England-based batting allrounder Pelser blagged his way onto a North West development project for nine players from England to turn out for clubs in Potchefstroom. Pelser proved such a hit with the locals that he played 153 matches for the province, captaining them 123 times. The original gig was supposed to last six months, but Pelser’s last game for North West was in January 2015.
Among the captains van der Dussen named, Pelser had the highest winning percentage at provincial level. Only Cook has a lower losing percentage. Van der Dussen played 69 games for North West. Pelser was the captain in 56 of those matches – ample time for his approach to influence his players’ idea of good leadership. And for Pelser to be able to offer an informed view of what kind of captain Van der Dussen might make.
“I think he’d be brilliant, and I don’t think not having done the job much will hinder him,” Pelser told Cricbuzz from his home in Bolton. “He does what needs doing for the team. That’s what comes first for him. He knows when to talk. And he knows when to keep quiet. He doesn’t betray his emotions, he just shuts things out and engages when he has to. He has so much maturity and an unshakeable belief in his own ability. I leant on him heavily.”
Van der Dussen wasn’t always so high in Pelser’s estimation: “I was quite taken aback when I played against him. He looked really sullen and not interested. He didn’t seem to be about anything. But that’s what he does, he just zones out. That’s his greatest strength. It’s only when I played with him that I understood him better, and discovered he had a wonderful dry sense of humour.”
Pelser and Dussen shared four century stands for North West, two of which soared past 200. “We had some good partnerships together, and he forced me to better,” Pelser said. “I’d look at the way he was playing, and think, ‘I look like a tailender next to him’.”
Why the focus on van der Dussen’s potential as a captain? Because of what Graeme Smith, South Africa’s director of cricket, said during an online press conference on Friday (April 17) when Cricbuzz asked him who the Test team’s new leader might be: “The one definitive answer that I can give you is that it’s not going to be Quinton. I can’t tell you who it’s going to be.”
Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma are among the options for Test captaincy ©Getty
Faf du Plessis gave up all forms of captaincy in February and Quinton de Kock has been installed as the white-ball boss. South Africa’s next Test series is in the Caribbean in July and August, so even if the rubber isn’t derailed by the coronavirus pandemic there is time to mull over the question of who might replace him. But none of the available options are a perfect fit, not that many teams have that luxury when they need a new skipper.
Dean Elgar has 50 games as captain to his credit, nine at the helm of South Africa A, 11 of them first-class and two of those Tests. He was also in charge at the 2006 under-19 World Cup. Elgar is four months short of two years older than van der Dussen, and he has played 59 more Tests. Temba Bavuma, who turns 30 on May 17, has 40 Test caps. He has led teams 39 times, 23 of those occasions at first-class level, and five involving South Africa A. Aiden Markram captained South Africa all the way to triumph at the 2014 under-19 World Cup, a fact that sticks out in a cricket culture where no other team has won a global prize since Hansie Cronje took his side all the way at the 1988 ICC Knockout Trophy – which became the Champions Trophy – in Bangladesh in October and November 1988. Markram has held the reins 50 times, including 11 of first-class stature, and seven of them with South Africa A.
Elgar’s elevation would reflect the importance of appointing a tough leader at a difficult stage of the team’s development. It can only help his cause that Smith and Mark Boucher are cut from the same hard, uncompromising cloth. Making Bavuma captain would satisfy a growing – and justified – push for a black leader of a team that purports to represent an overwhelmingly black nation, and in which most people who play and follow cricket are black. Of the 36 men who have led South Africa’s Test team only two, Ashwell Prince and Hashim Amla, have not been white. Markram’s age, a tender 25, allied to his playing role – of the dozen players who have captained South Africa in Tests since readmission in 1991, only Shaun Pollock, Boucher and Jacques Kallis have not been out-and-out batters – give him an edge.
Elgar has been part of the Test set-up since November 2012, when Smith was captain. If he wasn’t the man to succeed Smith or Amla, what makes him the preferred candidate now? That smacks of unfairness: circumstances don’t remain the same and players change accordingly. But it will be a factor.
Bavuma faces almost the opposite challenge: unlike Elgar he has not nailed down his place in the team, and players need a captain they can trust to do his own job properly before he tells them how to do theirs. That disregards the difficult situations Bavuma has guided South Africa through. But it is nonetheless a matter for discussion.
Patchy form and injuries have stalled Markram’s progress. He broke a finger during the first Test against England at Centurion in December, and despite returning to action with the Titans near the end of February he wasn’t picked for the subsequent ODI series against Australia nor the aborted white-ball tour to India. No centuries in his last 38 completed innings for South Africa, regardless of format, helps explains his omission. Questions about his temperament were raised when he injured a wrist with a punch to what a release euphemised as “a solid object” after he made a pair in the second Test against India in Pune in October.
But Markram is a higher calibre talent than any of the other candidates, and despite having had 30 fewer innings than Bavuma and doing the toughest job, opening the batting in all his trips to the Test crease, he has scored three more centuries. That said, Bavuma has made 421 more runs than Markram even though he has been shunted up and down the order, batting in five places in the top seven including as an opener.
And then there’s van der Dussen and his four Test caps and a solitary first-class captaincy. But there’s more than that: burgeoning respect in the dressingroom and in the more sensible corridors of power, appreciation for his lack of flash and dash, and recognition of his bedrock confidence in doing what he does better than most. There’s also this, from Smith: “Maybe take a risk on someone, potentially, and back them, try to understand who’s got some credibility within the environment [from] a leadership perspective and respect. Coming from a person a risk was taken on, it is something that we would certainly consider.” You could say as much in these three words: Van der Dussen.
“I want to be a thinking cricketer, obviously when I’m batting but also in the field – coming up with suggestions to assist the captain,” van der Dussen said in his online interview. “Whether you’re wearing the captain’s armband or not I’ll always challenge guys to try and do that. Because you’re out there on the field for a long time, you get to study opposition players and the conditions. You can challenge yourself to think as you would if you were captain.
“I was really fortunate, when I made my Test debut against England, to stand at first slip alongside a guy like Faf – one of the greatest man managers and leaders South Africa has ever seen – and on the other side [of me] was the limited overs captain, ‘Quinny’. Talking to those guys, learning, discussing how plans come together, and coming up with suggestions, even if the captain uses them or not, that was a real learning curve for me.
“Leadership has come naturally to me. I have done it before, I definitely can do it. Why I haven’t I’m not sure. But who knows what’s going to happen going forward.”
Nobody knows, thanks to the coronavirus. Just like nobody knew South Africa would take a chance on Smith until Pollock let slip the name of his successor at the press conference he gave in the wake of his sacking in March 2003. Smith didn’t do something similar on Friday – two days after van der Dussen spoke – not least because the decision is far from taken. And because he is too canny an operator.
But you can bank on him knowing that someone who looks like a captain, plays like a captain, talks like a captain, even walks like a captain, but hasn’t captained much, could be the right man in the right place at the right time. Just like Smith was.