Elgar urges South Africa to embrace the real challenge of their tour

Never mind the bilateral white-ball series that no-one will even remember took place; never mind another major tournament failure that no-one will forget, the real stuff in South Africa's tour to England starts now. At least if you ask Dean Elgar.

"What's happened throughout the summer with the one-dayers and the Champions Trophy and the T20s is in the past," Elgar said in Worcester, where he will lead South Africa against England Lions in a three-day tour match ahead of the four-Test series next month. "It's time to crack on with the proper format of Test cricket now."

Many will agree. Given South Africa's record in multi-team tournaments compared to their reputation in whites, Test cricket is where they have built their reputation in the recent past. Since beating England in 2008, South Africa have gone on to win in Australia three times, in New Zealand twice, in West Indies, Sri Lanka and the UAE and, though they were blitzed 3-0 in India at the end of 2015, they rose five places on the Test rankings last summer to sit at No.2.

The last time they came to England in 2012, they were in the same position. Though they cannot claim the Test mace with a series win on this occasion, this tour could set the tone for a showdown against India in the home summer, and Elgar expects the squad to be up for it. "It's a different energy that's within the Test side. Irrespective of how things have gone in the past, the energy is always in a good place for Test cricket," he said.

Mood is going to be an important factor for South Africa because they have seemed to be in a bad one since arriving in the UK a month ago. Amid uncertainty over AB de Villiers' future, angst over Faf du Plessis' availability for the first Test as he awaits the birth of his child, and an emergency in Russell Domingo's family which will result in the tour match, and perhaps even the start of the Test series, taking place without the presence of their coach, South Africa have been unsettled. Add to that the hefty defeats the A team suffered in two of three four-day games and England might think they hold the advantage. Elgar, however, sees an opportunity to exploit some recent movements in the opposition's set-up, not least the appointment of Joe Root as Alastair Cook's successor.

"England also seem to be a team that is going through a bit of a change with a new captain. I'm sure he has got his own things he wants to implement and I'm sure they are not 100% sure of their final XI," Elgar said.

The identity of Cook's opening partner is still being debated, and a decision will only be made at the weekend. Some of their Lions' players have returned to their counties for a round of pink-ball matches - a format Elgar of which seems far from convinced after calling himself an "old-school traditionalist" who believes Tests are played "with a red ball and white clothes" - others are pre-occupied with the one-day cup final between Nottinghamshire and Surrey, and the rest are facing South Africa in the practice match so there's a lot for the selectors to think about.

South Africa, on the other hand, have made their pick. Heino Kuhn will accompany Elgar at the top after Stephen Cook was axed. Elgar is pleased with his new partner, who is also a domestic team-mate. "Heino is a highly experienced player back home," Elgar said. "He has played a lot of seasons of cricket and he is quite familiar with his game-plans at the moment. It's great to see him finally get an opportunity.

"Heino and I are best of mates. We've been that for many years back home and we open the batting together back home. He is not unfamiliar to me. I'm sure our chemistry will go out onto the field."

Other new names include another opening batsman in Aiden Markram, who is the squad as cover in case du Plessis is not back in time, and allrounder Andile Phehlukwayo, but more of the focus will be on the absentees. Local media asked Elgar how the South Africans will cope without AB de Villiers - on a sabbatical from the longest format - and Dale Steyn - who is recovering from a shoulder injury. His answer? "We've missed AB and Steyn for the last two series and we've had guys who've put up their hands and put in massive performances. Having them the side is great but in my opinion we've got guys who have come in now and are really trying to make the position their own. In terms of selection now, they have definitely earned their right within the team. The game carries on which is quite important."

Even without their two heavyweights, South Africa have beaten Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, while their Test unit has solidified. Those results will give them confidence, especially if they have to start the series minus du Plessis. If that happens, Elgar will take over the leadership and he will have a practice run at it over the next three days. Elgar's captaincy experience includes six matches at first-class level and the Under-19 World Cup in 2006, and he has a strategy in place for the role at this level. "You've got to put your pride away and think of yourself as someone that can influence an environment," he said. "The leadership qualities that you possess have to come out."

As someone with a forthright personality and an obvious fighting spirit, Elgar can also be expected to lead by example, with form on his side. In six County Championship matches for Somerset, Elgar scored 517 runs at 47.00 including two centuries and is nicely familiarised with English conditions and players. He knows what South Africa will come up against and he knows they need to treat everything, including the warm-up in Worcester, as the real thing.

"We've got to hit the ground running. The series starts tomorrow and it's going to be vitally important for us to have some prep," he said. "We've got to compete against a very good England Lions side. To get that competitive edge is a big thing for us. Naturally the guys will have that instinct in them. It's a very big three days of cricket we have ahead."