By Sean Wilson for LastWordOnCricket
Every team needs its superstars. They are the men that draw in the crowds, create fear in the opposition and most importantly, get their side over the line when it really counts. As a result, they receive the plaudits and publicity more than their fellow players and, most of the time, for good reason.
South Africa have their fair share of superstars. Hashim Amla has a Test record that few current players can match, Faf du Plessis has made his name as a powerful middle-order batsman and now as an influential leader and Quinton De Kock is arguably the world’s most explosive keeper-batsman, not to mention one of cricket’s most talented batsmen ever, AB de Villiers, who is currently taking a break from the longer form of the game.
Looking at the bowling, Dale Steyn has 417 wickets at a stunning average of 22.30, Kagiso Rabada is arguably the brightest young talent around, Morne Morkel is nearing 250 Test scalps and not many exploit seaming conditions as ruthlessly as Vernon Philander. It truly is a line up to make any lover of the game purr.
Yet in any side there comes the occasional player that turns out to be the real glue that holds things together. The type that doesn’t receive the praise they perhaps should. For South Africa, amidst all their superstars, that man is Dean Elgar.
In the recent drawn Test against New Zealand at Dunedin, Elgar stood out above the rest for a number of reasons. In testing conditions, he showed the application, patience, and skill required to come through with flying colours. It was a real exhibition of Test match batting from an opener who is fast becoming one of the most reliable top order players in the Test arena.
Elgar’s efforts broke numerous records. He faced the most balls by a visiting batsman in New Zealand (548), beating Mike Atherton (546) and Alan Border (539) before him. In addition, only three South African batsmen have faced more balls in a Test and Elgar was the first opener to score more than 200 runs in a Test since Graeme Smith’s 234 against Pakistan at Dubai in 2013-14. Elgar also became his nation’s first opener to face more than 200 balls in each innings of a Test.
The records speak for themselves, though the Test was synonymous with how far Elgar has developed as a player. Since making a pair on Test debut at Perth against Australia, the 29-year-old has slowly started to fill the void of replacing the retired Smith as an opener for all conditions, notching up hundreds in four different countries. One of those includes Australia, where he returned to Perth to make amends with vital 127 – a contribution crucial to South Africa 1-0 going up in a winning series.
Away from the numbers, Elgar possesses a technique well suited to top order batting. Limited in his backlift, he plays shots with careful precision, with the cover drive becoming a vital part of his strokeplay. In addition, Elgar looks strong off his legs but it’s his judgment outside the off-stump which is perhaps most impressive. He has learned to weather often difficult new ball spells by leaving well and improving on his shot selection, much like his predecessor Smith in the years before him.
Yet Elgar is not content with what he has at the moment. He seems a man who wants to become a far better player than he already is. In an interview with ESPN Cricinfo at the start of the year, he confessed that he wants to be more consistent, considering he is now South Africa’s senior opener. “I’ve tended to get a hundred early in the series and then I don’t get on – I get these stupid 20s and 30s and 40s, which are highly frustrating,” he said during the home series against Sri Lanka. “I know that’s not my character. I had some chats with the Titans coach and some input from guys who aren’t in our squad.”
“In the past, I was going too hard at the ball. Hence I was sitting watching the game and not playing the game. It was part of that mental switch I had to go through. It was frustrating in previous series and games, which was bloody really just pissing me off a little bit.
“We know that if we get through the first hour, once that new ball becomes a little bit older, it’s going to give us a few more run-scoring opportunities. We feel that bowlers maybe go searching more, especially in the early overs, and that gives you a few free hits and boundaries.”
A significant part to the future success of this South African Test side now rests on Elgar. His gritty work at the top of the order paves the way for the stroke-makers to come later on. This is a man who is on the up and improving vastly as a cricketer since that unfortunate debut at Perth. He has given himself the reputation as one of the most consistent openers out there, something his nation have been searching for, ever since the retirement of Smith.
Of course, there are tough challenges ahead. A series in England against a new ball pair with over 800 Test wickets combined represents a stern examination of Elgar’s technique and mental fortitude. And as the likes of Virat Kohli and Steve Smith have experienced, when the ball begins to hoop around, even the best fall short. Also, Elgar has yet to succeed on the spinning pitches in India.
Yet, if anyone is up the task, it would be Elgar. He may not be the glamorous, dynamic player that fans pay their hard-earned money to come and watch and he certainly isn’t a man who can change the course of a Test match in a couple of sessions. Though what he does offer is a reliable, consistent basis from which South Africa can thrive on and that, more often than not, can prove just as valuable.