Baby Jake battles hardest

If South Africa save – or, who knows, even win – the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle this weekend then the man they call ‘Baby Jake’ will have done more than anyone to earn a spectacularly unlikely result.

Jacques Rudolph will, of course, always be ‘Baby Jake’ as long as Jacques Kallis is in the team but his stature has risen to such an extent in his last four Tests – and he has played only 15 – that he is regarded now as both a fixture and a senior player.

Physical fitness, mental strength, patience, concentration – all required in equal measure to bat for a full day of Test cricket and Rudolph has them in abundance. He is obviously comfortable with his role in the team, a quality and an asset that comes from being comfortable with his life.

Jacques and fiancee Elna bucked an increasing trend to marry later in life by tieing the knot last year at the age of 22 with Elna starting her final years as a medical student and Jacques at a critical point of his career after enduring a mostly miserable tour of England.

When Rudolph arrived in New Zealand as a married man, he was clearly ready to accept greater responsibility in both areas of his life – professional and personal. He made a quiet pledge to himself and to a couple of close friends that he would score runs – and plenty of them.

He was quite clear that he was in charge of his own fate and that he would “not be worth my place in the team unless I start performing.” There would be no excuses.

In the three Tests in New Zealand he made scores of 72, 154* and 93*. It meant he could relax, just a little, in the three months the team had off before their tour to Sri Lanka.

Rudolph loves nothing more than the bush. He likes to hunt but it is the peace and quiet of the veld that appeals most and he spent time in Namibia and around Thabazimbi in the North West province.

He even squeezed in a fishing trip to Mozambique with his great friend Albie Morkel (presumably while Elna had a lot of studying to do!)

Sometimes the look on a player’s face can be deceptive, like it often was with Gary Kirsten who looked calm and composed at times when his pulse was racing and his heart beating at twice its normal rate. And Rudolph’s serenity can be misleading, too. But it wasn’t on the third day of the Galle Test when nothing but an earthquake or falling meteor was likely to knock him off course or disrupt that concentration.

“I found it difficult to score in the morning session but I knew what my game plan was and I stuck to it,” Baby Jake said after the day’s play which he finished on 85 not out.

“I’m very proud of him. He provided the continuity for the innings and the other guys batted around him,” said coach Eric Simons.

There is a long way to go before South Africa can even contemplate saving the game.

But there was more than a sneeking feeling that Jacques Rudolph could have entered whatever stage of his career it is that comes after the ‘coming of age’ phase

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