During the post-series press conference after South Africa and India’s riveting battle in January, Dean Elgar explained how after the heavy defeat in the first Test match he provided a challenge to batters. While the exact parameters of the challenge weren’t given, Elgar did make it clear that “there were harsh talks and frank discussions”. During the latter half of the third test, Elgar went to Rabada and was seen animatedly revving up his bowler who had seemed off-colour in the series.
Then, before the recently concluded second match against New Zealand in the pre-match press conference, Elgar made it clear that Aiden Markram must score runs. It was a public ultimatum to a player South Africa have placed great faith in over the past few years, with mixed results. After the match, Elgar said he and his players knew that batting first was going to be, but that it was essential that they find away to play positive cricket and succeed doing it. It is precisely this attitude that looks to be behind the resurgence of this South African Test side.
The challenges that have been presented to South African cricket have fallen on to them similar to a domino effect- one after another. Their board has been facing political pressure in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, while they have also tried to contend with pressing financial issues. This has coincided with the retirement of their golden generation within the space of a few years. AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel both departed in 2018, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn in 2019, and finally Faf du Plessis in 2021.
When it seemed like they had found a few other major players they could rely on in the form of Markram, Elgar, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada and Quinton de Kock, this didn’t quite materialise either. Star man de Kock left what looked like a serious hole in the side when he made the shock decision to retire from Test cricket after the first match of the Freedom Trophy. Markram’s average has barely been in double-digits over the past year, and whilst Maharaj and Rabada have played major roles in South African victories in 2022, neither man has looked at the peak of their powers.
And yet South Africa are a side on the rise, with their domestic system producing new players. Keegan Petersen, beyond the numbers, clearly has real talent and, after a tough start to life against the West Indies, was the player of the series against India, playing two crucial fourth-innings knocks to all-but win the series for South Africa against the mighty India. Marco Jansen, meanwhile, was considered too inexperienced to perform at the top level. But he has had no such issues so far. So far, in all of his Test matches bar one, he has picked up at least three wickets in the match, with 28 wickets to his name already after five Test matches at an average of 20.35.
Wicket-keeper Kyle Verreyne, meanwhile, announced his arrival with a superb fighting century against New Zealand to clinch the second match and save the series, whilst Sarel Erwee also scored a hundred in the first innings to help set the game up for South Africa. Suddenly, this looks like a strong South African batting line-up. Strong enough that they have not even had to call upon the powerful Ryan Rickelton, who is averaging over 52 in first-class cricket and has 10 centuries and ten 50s after just 35 first-class matches.
But being talented is one thing, turning this talent and potential into results is quite another. That is where Elgar’s captaincy comes into play. His leadership has ensured that South Africa never deliver anything less than full commitment and has been vital in the resurgence of South African Test cricket. That fighting spirit was on display once again in New Zealand. In the first Test, South Africa barely made 200 across their two innings, ending up on the receiving end of a thrashing.
But, even shorn of their most promising batter in Petersen, out of the series having tested positive for covid-19, they stood up to New Zealand’s challenge to beat their hosts in the second match. That sort of determined display seems to be becoming the norm for this South African side.
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