South Africa v NZ, 2nd Test, Port Elizabeth, 2nd day January 12, 2013

Elgar makes the leap with maiden Test hundred

Dean Elgar was probably wondering why the step into Test cricket had proved so easy for Faf du Plessis. Now he has his own Test hundred at only the third time of asking

Test cricket should be tough for rookies. Even rookies who have cruised through seasons of domestic cricket, destroying all in their path. Even rookies who look as though they were born with an international shirt number embroidered on their soft baby skin. It should require fumbling, falling flat and making mistakes.

Dean Elgar was probably given to wondering why it was all so easy for Faf du Plessis. Du Plessis was South Africa's saviour on debut when he turned a potential Test defeat into a morale-boosting draw which led to a series win in Australia. Michael Clarke was officially named as man of the series, but Du Plessis' team-mates triumphantly hailed him as their own choice.

Crucially, du Plessis looked like he belonged. He had the temperament to make the step up. Under extreme pressure, du Plessis was able to defend tirelessly in Adelaide and attack cautiously in Perth. His start suggested that the changes he made to his game by moving up the order for his domestic franchise and turning down a T20 deal with Somerset to captain South Africa A in unofficial Tests had paid off.

If du Plessis could make the transition so easily, Elgar must have thought as he sat on the sidelines in Adelaide, then surely I do the same? Elgar's first-class record has been consistently better than du Plessis over the last three seasons and he has played more matches. Over the last three seasons Elgar averaged 50.11 in franchise cricket in 32 matches (not accounting for other matches for teams like South Africa A) while du Plessis played half that number and averaged 40.47.

They both played in the June matches against Sri Lanka A and both contributed heavily to South Africa's victory. Elgar top-scored with 171, du Plessis made 144. Given Elgar's form in first-class cricket, it was thought he would be picked for South Africa in the longer format first but instead he was chosen to play in the one-day series against Sri Lanka. Du Plessis was already in the set-up at limited-overs level.

Before any cricket began, Elgar sustained a serious knee injury that kept him out of cricket for the rest of the summer. Du Plessis went on to score an important 72 in South Africa's win in Bloemfontein and their paths went in opposite ways. Du Plessis was picked as a replacement in England, Elgar was part of the one-day set up where he fared modestly and both were taken to Australia knowing they would only be called into action if something happened to JP Duminy or Jacques Rudolph.

That something happened first for du Plessis when he took the place of the injured Duminy and he made everything of it. Something also happened when Rudolph's rope ran out and Elgar was inserted into his spot. The difference was that Elgar did not look comfortable at all.

His pair alone did not suggest that. Many rightly pointed out that Graham Gooch and Marvan Atapattu were among the batsmen to have gone run-less in their first Test and built impressive careers after that. Elgar could simply have got unlucky but he did not.

He was worked over by Mitchell Johnson on that Test debut in Perth. The left-armer started with bouncers in the first innings, hurrying Elgar into shots as he searched desperately for his first Test run. Then, Johnson began to pitch them up and just when everyone but Elgar was expecting a short ball, Johnson delivered one and he was caught off the glove, hooking.

It took Johnson even fewer balls to get the same result in the second innings when he followed up three bouncers with a length ball and Elgar padded up to it. For a batsman who had handled bounce around South Africa for years to have been so conclusively rattled by it was surprising. Welcome, international cricket said to Elgar, you've fallen into the gap.

Gary Kirsten's way is to give players sufficient chances and Elgar was informed he would keep his place for the less challenging task of facing the New Zealand attack. Even then, in the first Test in Cape Town, Elgar did not look like he fitted in.

Coming in after a century from Alviro Petersen and 60s from Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla, Elgar had a stable platform from which to launch. He scored a run off his first ball but still did not look entirely sure of himself. His footwork was uncertain, his early drives nothing but tentative prods and he seemed to lack the confidence to play outside the off stump. He struggled to bring his bat down straight. Suddenly, despite a reputation for possessing one of the tightest techniques in South Africa, Elgar looked out of his depth.

The early parts of his innings in Port Elizabeth were similar. He was nervous, drove loosely, pulled uncertainly. After three attempts at the shot, he got it right and controlled the ball well to the mid-wicket boundary. That was the first sign that Elgar could step up.

As the innings progressed, Elgar straightened his bat and began to time the ball well, especially on the drive. He displayed some patience and much skill, living up to his classy domestic reputation. Bearing in mind that Elgar is usually an opening batsman, adjusting to the lower middle order was perhaps always going to take some extra time. By his own admission, he had to develop an understanding of how to handle batting with the bowlers.

But he had them to thank for being able to get to his first Test hundred. Despite wanting to declare at tea, Graeme Smith sent out the lower order to allow Elgar to bring up the milestone and it was not a gratuitous concession. Although cricket remains a team game, with the amount of time left in the game to leave Elgar nine short would have denied him the opportunity of a confidence booster.

Now, a Test hundred to his name, he feels as though he has done something to prove he has a Test career ahead of him. Du Plessis' phenomenal rise will always serve as a reminder that some people were just born to play Test cricket but it's the lesson Elgar teaches that is more notable. Most players do not learn to bat and bowl before they learn to crawl, walk, talk, scrape their knees and fail on the way to success. Elgar has walked that road now. And it is still only his third Test.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gerald on January 14, 2013, 12:24 GMT

    As far as Elgar goes, he is a good selection. While you can't fault Faf who has done very well I personally think Elgar will go much further than him and not just due to him being younger. Faf is not a ~45-50 bat, Elgar might be. Rudolph for whatever reason has never managed to step up to international cricket and Duminy (obviously out due to injury) also has not done much to cement himself in the Test team. I am glad that Elgar got the chance because to know we have 3-4 batsmen that are circling and ready to fill any injury gaps is reassuring especially as Elgar should open for SA at some point in the future when either Petersen or Smith gets injured/retires.

  • David on January 13, 2013, 8:32 GMT

    @ big_al_81 on (January 13 2013, 08:04 AM GMT) If none of this tells you anything, then why on earth are you reading it, never mind commenting on it? If reading these articles is, as you say, a waste of time why you are happily wasting your time - AND OURS.

    If you have nothing to say, say nothing.

  • dj on January 13, 2013, 8:16 GMT

    Well done Deano . A couple of things to work on technique wise from here , but at least you have shown you belong at this level.

  • Yogesh on January 13, 2013, 8:04 GMT

    An absolutely brilliant piece of writing. Mr Moonda, take a bow! Just as you said in the article du Plessis looked the part in his debut Test, you come across as a massively polished writer. I am sure there is tons of hard work behind it, but the prose is faultless and exceptionally well put together. Every budding cricket writer should be made to read this piece, amongst other classic pieces, as an example.

  • Alistair on January 13, 2013, 8:04 GMT

    This is an example of the need to write about everything today. I'm afraid there is almost nothing to say about Dean Elgar at this stage in his 'career'. There are a lot of words here about nothing. When he's played 20 Tests it might be worth commenting on his sticky start. Frankly, at this stage, who knows how good he is, or how many tests he will play. He was bad against a good attack for a very brief period and scored a century against the poorest NZ side for many a year. That tells me nothing at all. The same is true for du Plessis, for the de Villiers wk experiment and it's even true for Philander given the small number of games he's played. Guessing, guessing, guessing. I know some of that makes the discussion fun but after 3 tests or 4 it's just a waste of time.

  • Ivan on January 13, 2013, 6:19 GMT

    I'm glad for Elgar's sake but I must say I'm surprised that he has been selected ahead of Miller for the ODIs. Miller looks to me like a really good prospect in the shorter versions; he hits the ball with power all around the ground. And his work in the field in the T20s was excellent.

  • ttn on January 13, 2013, 0:58 GMT

    pak attack would test elgars technique against spin and swing

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2013, 0:48 GMT

    Albie Morkel has the same batting average as Elgar in first-class cricket, excelled on England tour in the side matches and bowls well enough to be the fifth bowler if SA want to protect Kallis' back. Then there is of course Duminy who too can bowl a little bit and has already excelled in tests.

  • Alastair on January 13, 2013, 0:45 GMT

    Elgar is well worth keeping around the setup. For SA to build a legacy similar to the Australians, West Indians (which is certainly possible) they are going to need replacements for Smith (nearly 32 - and I feel a likely early Taylorish retirement at 34), Petersen (32) and Kallis (37). In 5 years Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis will all be pushing mid-thirties, along with Steyn and Morkel.

    As it stands though, SA are a fine team right now and Elgar just needs to keep doing things right and he may have an excellent career.

  • Wayne on January 13, 2013, 0:21 GMT

    @ Robin Benger - I think he's middled it though!!