Dean Elgar went to bed last night with a torso full of bruises. That is unconfirmed, but given the amount of punishment his body copped over 309 minutes at the crease at the Wanderers, it would be astounding if his flesh wasn’t littered with bruises and welts.
Each one is a badge of honour. The Proteas captain ended his vigil four runs short of a 14th Test century but his unbeaten epic will rank as the greatest of his career. There is a strong case that this is the best knock by a South African Test captain since Graeme Smith’s 154 not-out against England in Birmingham back in 2008.
That may sound hyperbolic, and no doubt there are scores of readers making convincing rebuttals, but consider the facts. Elgar’s 96 is the eighth highest score by a South African in the fourth innings in a Test they have won. Smith features four times in the top seven, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Herschelle Gibbs have one appearance each.
Elgar, for all his qualities, is in a different realm to these players. Three of those batters are among the most naturally talented the country has ever produced and Smith’s sheer force of will places him in an entirely separate echelon. Elgar’s well is simply not as deep and yet he extracted every last drop to ensure his team remained in the series.
What’s more, he achieved this feat against a seam attack that has a claim to being the best in the world. Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders might disagree, but Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Mohammed Shami and Shardul Thakur are a mighty foursome no matter where you place them in the modern pantheon. With a pitch that was not only two-paced but also offering consistent lateral movement having spent more than a session sweating under covers, this was a pace quartet capable of unlocking any batting line-up in the world.
Not only did Elgar resist, but he also punched back. Ten boundaries is not a mighty haul but he rotated the strike superbly. He climbed with each steep bounce off a length and bunted away provocative full deliveries. Singles appeared from his bat as if conjured by a wand. Though he looked awkward and uncomfortable, he clung to the rock, immovable and implacable, embedded and wedded to the cause.
One other variable that elevates Elgar’s innings to greater heights is that it occurred in this Proteas team. Smith, Amla, de Villiers and Gibbs could look around a change room and tick off a list of batting superstars. Elgar has no such luxury. Before the start of the match, not a single batter had a career average above 40. Along with Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma, Elgar was one of just three Test centurions, and their combined tally of 19 is only one ahead of Cheteshwar Pujara.
It’s overly simplistic to describe this team as in a state of transition. What is happening at Cricket South Africa, from the head seat of the boardroom right through the entire pyramid, is something more akin to an identity crisis. So much of the culture is toxic as revealed by public hearings that effectively found the director of cricket, the men's national coach and a former captain complicit in conscious and subconscious racism.
Compounding matters is the departure in the last four years of Amla, de Villiers, Morne Morke, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis. The few returning Kolpaks from England have somewhat plugged the experience gap, but they're also bringing the baggage they left at the airport when they made their hasty exit.
All the while the men’s team has continued to struggle at world cups, now no longer regarded as competitive enough to be branded as chokers. The domestic system was altered in the hope that it might better equip emerging talents for the elite level. And most recently, Quinton de Kock abandoned Test cricket just months after refusing to take a knee in support of a global anti-racist movement.
Fans have become disaffected. Sponsors have pulled back their support. The pandemic further destabilised an already teetering organisation. Even local journalists, supposedly impartial observers, were at each others’ throats on social media, slinging mud and unearthing buried skeletons.
It was in this storm that Elgar was appointed captain. A straight-shooting, laconic speaker who prefers to lead by example. A man less interested in politics than some would like given his role in a country still grappling with its criminal past and divided present, but someone deeply invested in winning cricket matches with a limited squad. He’s not the captain South African cricket might want right now, but he is the captain South African cricket needs, dragging them to places they couldn’t reach on their own.
In all likelihood, given the strength of the two sides, this series will probably end with an Indian victory in Cape Town. But in order to do that the tourists must replicate the grittiness, the steadfastness, the dripping humanity of Elgar. This is not a cricketer who oozes class the way KL Rahul, Ajinnkya Rahane, or Virat Kohli do. The most like-for-like comparison is Pujara and even he looks like Brian Lara when contrasted with Elgar.
India must find that steel within them. Rishabh Pant was by no means the only Indian batter who threw his wicket away but the manner of his dismissal — charging Kagiso Rabada and then swinging maniacally — in the second innings with the score 167 for 4 was a major turning point.
What if Pant had opted to resist the way Elgar resisted? What if he decided that this was an innings in which daring and bravery did not manifest as recklessness but instead played out with straight bats, well-judged leaves and the occasional ball to the rib cage? The delivery before he lost his wicket Pant was hit on the helmet. That perhaps rattled him. Had he demonstrated an ounce of what Elgar showed in abundance at the 'Bull Ring', he would have shrugged it off and welcomed another blow.
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The 48-year-old has been in charge of Australia's all-conquering women's team for the past seven years, winning back-to-back Twenty20 World Cups in 2018 and 2020 and the 50-over equivalent earlier this year.
Umpires from host countries have been used exclusively since 2020 when the pandemic imposed worldwide travel restrictions.