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Dean Elgar v R Ashwin - a rivalry transformed

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WATCH - Dean Elgar's incredible ton (1:54)

Dean Elgar was in fine form as he struck 160 in Visakhapatnam. For more India vs. South Africa, sign up for ESPN+ (1:54)

It was only the third over of the day's play, and South Africa were three down and 453 runs behind India's first-innings total, but Dean Elgar wasn't going to let those details come in the way of how he wanted to bat.

He would later explain that he didn't want to let India's spinners settle and bowl the way they wanted to. "It was me putting my stamp on my innings."

The ball from R Ashwin was floated onto a good length, and drifting in from around the wicket. Elgar got his front leg out of the way and lifted the ball over mid-on, not quite middling it but meeting it well enough to clear the fielder comfortably and get four runs.

In all, Elgar would played 15 lofted shots against India's spinners and scored 50 of his 160 runs in that manner. He would do what Mayank Agarwal (57 runs via lofted hits) and Rohit Sharma (52) had done to South Africa's spinners, but he would do it his way, muscling the ball from the crease rather than dancing down the pitch.

It takes outstanding judgment for a batsman to play an innings as long as Elgar's while hitting the ball in the air as often as he did, against spinners of the quality of Ashwin and Jadeja. You have to be selective about the balls you go after, but you can't just wait for outright hit-me balls, because you won't get many at this level. You'll have to commit fully to the shot and play it knowing fully well the risk involved and being prepared for the worst-case scenario, that you'll hole out when your side is already in trouble, as the case was for Elgar for much of his innings. Imagine the headlines.

Imagine the headlines if he'd been out in this manner, early in his innings, to Ashwin, who's already dismissed him five times in Test cricket.

What's happened instead is that he's now scored 73 runs off his last 157 balls against Ashwin, over their last two meetings in Test cricket, without being dismissed. This was their head-to-head before that: 158 balls, 63 runs, five dismissals.

The turnaround happened during the Centurion Test in January 2018, where, after getting out to Ashwin in the first innings, he made a scratchy but invaluable 61 in the second, getting beaten multiple times by Ashwin but not getting out to him.

In his end-of-day press conference on Friday, Elgar said he hadn't made any major changes in his approach to facing Ashwin during or around the Centurion Test.

"No. I remember it was a spinning wicket as well in Centurion that they produced. It was like playing in Mumbai," he said. "I can't say I changed much. I've faced a lot of spin. In county cricket you face a lot of spin. The ball actually spins in England now because it's so dry, which is a good experience.

"It's maybe my mindset going into batting now. I'd like to think I have grown a lot as a player since that Test in Centurion. There's been a lot of cricket played. I don't just sit around and do nothing; I actually go and play cricket, which obviously leaves me in good stead for experiences like this."

The mindset could well be what's changed. Take some of the early meetings with Ashwin, when Elgar lost his wicket in moments where he seemed to lose his composure. In the infamous 2015 Nagpur Test, for instance, he snatched too eagerly at a wide one and chopped on, right after being beaten four times in a row.

"It was quite revealing to see the ball begin to turn and spit after Elgar's dismissal in the third session, but the pitch hadn't changed; it was just that Senuran Muthusamy, new to the crease, hadn't yet begun moving his feet properly."

In the first innings at Centurion, having looked uncomfortable against Ashwin for 14 balls, he stepped out too early at the 15th, and sent a panicked jab towards silly point, who competed the catch after the ball lodged itself between his elbow and midriff.

During his second-innings 61, Elgar seemed to show a lot more belief in his own game, and didn't let the plays-and-misses cause him to loosen his approach to the next ball. All the experience he's had since then facing spin in other conditions - including getting out to Ashwin twice in a county game this July - has probably strengthened that belief.

On Friday, the risks Elgar took were all on his own terms; they weren't forced by Ashwin, or Jadeja, making him try things outside of his gameplan or comfort zone. His footwork was decisive, and his shots, both attacking and defensive, were full of authority.

Elgar would have realised fairly early on that the pitch would be his ally once he got his eye in. It was one of those tracks that are tricky to start an innings on, but which become easier once batsmen get their eye in. It was quite revealing to see the ball begin to turn and spit after Elgar's dismissal in the third session, but the pitch hadn't changed; it was just that Senuran Muthusamy, new to the crease, hadn't yet begun moving his feet properly.

By then, Elgar and the two other senior pros, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock, had announced that the South Africa of 2019-20 would be a different batting unit to the one that came to India four years ago. All three followed variations on the same template. They trusted their defence, they backed their respective attacking strengths, and made sure they didn't let the bowlers settle into a rhythm. Elgar, du Plessis and de Kock began this tour with averages of 24.29, 22.38 and 19.66 in Asia; they put all that behind them at the first possible opportunity and put on a masterclass of batting against spin.