Headingley homecoming for Jacques Rudolph?

2012-08-03 00:00

JACQUES Rudolph was nearly lost to the South African cricketing system when he undertook a sojourn to Yorkshire after a barren spell with the Proteas in 2006. He now returns to what could have been his home ground, but can he make the most of it?

Headingley is a ground which Geoffrey Boycott will always harp on about as being a spin bowler’s nightmare, and about how the ball needs to be pitched full, in order to make the batsman play.

For AB de Villiers, it will hold bittersweet memories of that wrongly claimed grounded catch and the subsequent 174 that showed his maturity, which is able to rescue games. Jacques Kallis, whose England record is improving slightly, knows the pain of conceding a series in 1998 and the following joys of 2003 and 2008.

It is funny to realise that Headingley could have become Rudolph’s adopted home ground. He joined Yorkshire after the Proteas’ selectors had had enough of his spiking performances, which either peaked or flat-lined. There was no doubting his talent and saving his best for when the world was caving in around him. Like the unbeaten 154 in Auckland in the face of a withering cherry assault by Chris Martin, who dismembered all but the man from Pretoria during his 11/180 in New Zealand’s maiden Test win against South Africa on home soil.

His 102 not out on an anodyne and uncharacteristically flat Waca pitch in Perth saw him defy the best that Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee could throw at him.

On his return though, the strength of the current Protea batting line-up means his rearguard skills have not been called upon. He didn’t even have to tie up his pads or don his gloves at the Oval, Hashim Amla and Kallis simply batted England out of the game.

The Headingley wicket is so unpredictable,though, that his services and the valuable experience garnered during his four-year stay there will come in handy. After all, Headingley has experienced only two draws since 1981, when Sir Ian Botham sizzled during that amazing Ashes series.

Rudolph was part of the 191-run win in 2003 when his crucial 55 in a 95-run partnership with current coach Gary Kirsten steered the team out of mine-infested waters and eased the pain of a five-year itch caused by Darren Gough’s reverse swing and Javed Akhtar’s dubious umpiring. Now that he is in an even better side than the unsettled development team of 2003, he is in a position to unleash those rasping cuts and sizzling cover drives that caught the selector’s eyes before the late Percy Sonn chose to wield his political axe and put Rudolph’s career on hold until that sparkling 222 against Bangladesh.

Number six is a hotly contested position and with the talented JP Duminy snapping at his heels, Rudolph has to make his Headingley homecoming count. South Africa has displayed this irritating tendency of getting caught cold after massive innings win in first Tests. It happened against India and Sri Lanka in the previous two home summers, and England will be counting on the Proteas to walk straight into their set trap.

Graeme Swann might be disquieted by Headingley’s notorious aversion to spinners, thereby eliminating one threat, but a lack of Test-match experience could hinder Rudolph as his last Test innings was 11 against New Zealand at a blustery Basin Reserve in March. Even though he has had the luxury of three tour matches, the white-hot, Test-match cauldron is near to impossible to replicate. A settled and content Rudolph spells danger for England. At 31, there may never be a better chance for him to stake a permanent claim. A wounded England is a dangerous one and if South Africa’s top order is capsized, Rudolph will have to fight the fires. Fortunately, it is an art he is well versed in.

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