Dean Elgar doesn't care what you think of his captaincy or his batting or anything else about his cricket career. But he is quite sure he cares about those things more than most.
"From a relatively young age, I was always that person who was pretty hard on myself and my biggest critic. What people write and say about me now - that can't penetrate my skin. I'm the critic in my career," he says from Canterbury, where South Africa are preparing for their three-Test tour in England.
And a harsh critic he is too. Even though South Africa have resurrected themselves from seventh on the Test rankings to the top of the World Test Championship points table; and have not lost a series under Elgar's captaincy, with three wins and a draw, his reaction to their progress is more cerebral than celebratory. "It's a good environment but we can get a lot better knowing that it's still pretty young, it's still pretty raw. And the minute you think nothing is wrong is when you need to maybe have a look in the mirror."
Thinking nothing is wrong is not a problem that has afflicted South African cricket recently. In the three years since the 2019 World Cup, everything from the administration to the on-field performance unravelled, sponsors left, the coffers dwindled, and the sociopolitical culture of CSA and its teams was scrutinised. Skeletons tumbled out of the closet. For the players, the laser focus on the change-room environment and in particular their understanding of issues related to race was cause for angst and introspection. This was underlined by their initially not taking a knee and then being instructed to do so by the board. Ultimately they have now come out on the other side with a greater sense of understanding and purpose, Elgar believes.
"We've been through quite a rocky ride but at the end of the day, we can sit around the same table and we can still look each other in the eye and have a lot of respect for each other," he says. "From a boardroom sense, obviously we know what that is, and I don't want to get into that because that's now water under the bridge. We've turned a new page, and we have to work with what we have now. Everyone is pulling in the right direction. It's a little bit difficult to work in one direction when three people are going this way and five are going the other way. You're always going to have something that doesn't work and doesn't complement the environment. Now we've got something that's a lot more concrete going forward. We've got people around the team that have seen cricket as the focal point. They want to get cricket and South Africa and the Proteas back on the map again."
After stumbling through multiple crises, Elgar says South Africa have emerged on the other side with greater understanding and singular purpose•AFP/Getty Images
One of those people, according to Elgar, is the head coach, Mark Boucher, who was also at the centre of a storm. From facing criticism over the way he was appointed - by his friend and former director of cricket Graeme Smith, to testimony at the Social Justice and Nation Building hearings (SJN) that brought into question his conduct as a player and a player-manager and led to disciplinary charges being filed against him by CSA, and then dropped, it's clear that Boucher is not everyone's favourite person, but the captain thinks he is the right person for the job.
"He just wants to see the best cricketers performing and playing for South Africa. He does demand a high standard, no doubt. He's been there, done that, and he's seen a lot of things throughout international cricket over a few decades. And I think he understands what this badge means," Elgar says.
"I work well with Bouch. We kind of complement each other pretty well. One day he's the bad guy and the next time I'm the bad guy, but I think you need that. For things to work, you need that kind of relationship. It's a good relationship. Don't get me wrong, him and I, we also bump heads. It's natural. It's just trying to try to reach an outcome at the end of the day and the outcome is for us to give us the best chance of performance and obviously ultimately winning."
This is not the first time the idea of playing the "bad guy" has come up where Elgar is concerned. A couple of months ago, Temba Bavumaspoke to the Cricket Monthly, where it emerged that he, in his role as white-ball captain and Test vice-captain, also feeds off a contrasting leadership style to Elgar's. Bavuma described them as being different in the way they communicate but with the same goal in sight, and Elgar echoed that. "If you combine what Temba and I are trying to create, it's off the same hymnal," he says. "The biggest thing is that we obviously wanted to bring back the respect to the badge. And we were pretty ruthless around that - that the only way we can do that is by playing the brand of cricket that everyone loves and wants to watch. Our currency is obviously runs and wickets and wins. And I think with regard to that, we definitely have the same vision going forward."
And now that they have been in charge for more than a year, Elgar believes they have succeeded in establishing their style and have the support of all the players involved. "I've always had a very good relationship with all the players that I've come across within the set-up and it was just about maintaining those relationships, and actually, for the players to get the buy-in from you as a captain and your ideas," he says. "And I don't think I've struggled with regards to building a relationship with guys, because that foundation had already been set in the time I've been in this environment. So in a sense, you've already got that respect factor between the two parties. It's just about getting the players to buy into your ideas and your views and your journey forward. The guys have definitely responded very well."
Good cap, bad cap: Elgar says he and vice-captain Temba Bavuma have contrasting leadership styles but the same end goal in sight•Mark Baker/Associated Press
For Elgar to communicate his vision of tough, smart cricket, he says he had to "upskill" himself, "just taking a little bit more time and showing a lot more care towards the guys, which has been something I was more than willing to do". He calls it one of the biggest learning curves in his career, and a "full-circle experience" but said it could never come at the cost of his primary job: opening the batting. "I feel it's my duty to still be Dean the captain and also be Dean the cricketer. My currency is runs, first and foremost. That's how I was selected for the side."
And Elgar has walked his talk. Since taking over, he is South Africa's leading run-scorer in the format and has also set the tone for how they approach their batting. He led the series-levelling chase against India at the Wanderers, with an unbeaten 96, he led the comeback against New Zealand by spending two and a half hours at the crease to score 41 runs, and he led the aggressive batting against Bangladesh, with 70 off 89 balls in Gqeberha. But without a triple-figure score to his name as captain, he isn't entirely happy with his performances.
"The last year has gone well but by no means was it ideal or perfect. I know responsibility is big on my shoulders to score runs for us and I was still disappointed. Even though I might be sitting on top of the run-scoring list, for me it's about making a bigger impact," he says. "It's still about [having] a bigger influence and leading a lot of young batters as well. A lot of the batters that we have - they are definitely talented - are just young and inexperienced and they need someone to feed off."
In this England series, that will be even more important because Bavuma has been ruled out with an elbow injury, and no one else in the top six has played Test cricket in this country before. They're not used to the Dukes ball, the seaming conditions, and the boisterous crowds, having played all their Test cricket over the last two years to mostly empty stands. It's a new challenge, but one Elgar feels his team is ready for, given how they have embraced the ones they have faced so far, and he is pushing them to.
"I don't play to lose. I absolutely despise losing. And if we play an average brand [of cricket], or we're not putting our best foot forward, and we don't have results going our way, then that affects me quite a bit," he says. "This is a massive series for all of us. I think we've got 17 players and it's massive for all 17 of us to go out there, play a brand of cricket that appeals to South Africans and ultimately gives us the best chance of winning in England. We've seen it happen in the past before, so we know it can be done.
Since he took over as captain in June 2021, Elgar has scored over 600 Test runs at an average of 46.14•Cricket South Africa
"We played against the best in the world last year [India, then-ranked No. 1], and I think we did things that we didn't quite expect to do at that time. So the standard that we've set and the bar that we've raised since last year has happened pretty naturally just out of us doing good things on the field again.
"It's gonna be a tough series, no doubt. They are a proud cricketing nation and I respect that. But I know they are definitely beatable. I didn't come here to play second fiddle. I came here to win a series."
Expect Elgar to repeat some of that tough talk on the field. He is well known for his words, even when they don't always lead to the outcome he intended. In May 2017, for example, he motivated Rilee Rossouw, a long-time domestic team-mate of his to score 156 from 113 balls in a one-day cup match by taunting him about his Kolpak deal. If he plans on anything similar against England, he is not telling us.
"Our sledging days have come to a bit of an end because of the ICC and the heavy fines that they implement on players now if you step over the line. But there is still plenty of space for a bit of wit and a bit of commentary off mic," he says. Remembering he is a senior player, he quickly adds: "I don't even think I'm gonna have time for that because when you are captaining, you've just got to focus on your greater job and that's obviously to get one over the opposition."
But in typical Elgar fashion, he won't leave it there. "In the heat of battle, there's always something that comes out. Let's put it that way. I just want to play three really, really hard Test matches and go out there and put the badge on the line and throw a bit more respect into the badge."
The badge is something Elgar speaks about with immense pride. He points to it every time he mentions it. It means something to him. And it meant something when he criticised some of his team-mates for choosing the IPL over the Bangladesh Test series in March-April this year.
All those who went to the lucrative Indian tournament are back in the Test squad - and CSA's willingness to let them go, and the board's years of co-operation with the IPL has paid off handsomely, with all six teams in CSA's new league bought by IPL owners. The new league will be played in January-February, previously a prime Test window for South Africa, which means that international fixtures will be squeezed into earlier in the summer (later is unlikely because of the IPL) and as more leagues pop up, there's more talk of the international game shrinking. Elgar still seems to take a dim view of players preferring franchise competitions over their national colours badge but can understand why he may be in a minority.
"Captaincy was just about maintaining relationships, and for the players to get the buy-in from you as a captain and your ideas"•RANDY BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images
"There are quite a few of them [leagues] around at the moment. It's a little bit difficult to keep tabs on everything and everyone that's playing around it. I still think international cricket needs to be the pinnacle of every cricketer, irrespective of what age you are. The English do it pretty well, where they want to commit everything, they want to give all their energy to play in Test cricket. And I'd like to think the rest of the world also sees that. You can't compete when people are throwing around millions of dollars in tournaments because not every cricketer is eligible to get selected for international cricket. You can only select a few but I still like to think that the strength of Test cricket, especially, still holds the highest rank around the world," he says.
That said, he concedes that he will play in the CSA league if called on, as part of his commitment to helping South African cricket thrive. "It's part of our season, that's part of my schedule. And if I get picked up, I mean, why not?" he says. "I still think we hold it in our own personal capacities to make things right again in cricket in South Africa. That's still a massive responsibility for us. It's not just playing international cricket. It's about going back home and giving back to the game and giving back to the younger cricketers as well. We need to get that ball rolling again for CSA so that they can become a powerhouse again."
South Africa were probably last considered a powerhouse a decade ago, when they came in 2012 to England and beat them to claim the Test mace. A few months later, Elgar debuted in Australia, where South Africa won. They went on to draw a series with Pakistan in the UAE and win in Sri Lanka, and stayed No. 1 for more than three years before losing to India in 2015. Since then, they have battled for consistency but not heart and now they are on a run that suggests better times are ahead. Elgar won't look too far, though, and prefers to stay in the moment. "I don't like to plan too far down the line. I don't like to set myself goals. I live for the now. What must be, must be," he says.
In nine Tests, Elgar has been dismissed four times by James Anderson•Getty Images
At 35, he still believes there are many years and runs left in him. "I'd like to still try and contribute as much as I can to the Proteas. I've always said as long as they want me around, I'll be around. I still feel I've got a hell of a lot left in me. But the minute that cloud has come over you and you get a sense you don't really belong here as a player anymore, I'd be pretty mindful and realistic around that. And probably end my career playing county cricket."
With stints at Somerset in 2013 and 2017, and Surrey in 2015, 2018 and 2019, Elgar is familiar with the county set-up but he never considered a Kolpak deal. Although the nature of England's domestic cricket is changing and the County Championship is no longer considered the prime competition of the summer, he still wants to give it a go. But he is happy to remain open to other offers, including from South Africa. "Who knows? Things can come around. I might be in the Proteas setup in a coaching capacity. No one knows. At the moment the future is so unpredictable. The only thing you can try and control is what you have in front of you."
Elgar will soon have the English attack in front of him and two of them - Ben Stokes and James Anderson - have dismissed him more often than any other seamers. "I have a pretty rich history with opening bowlers of the English," he says. "They tend to challenge me quite a bit, but in a good way. It makes me pretty hungry to do well knowing that I'm competing against the best bowlers that England's ever produced. For me, it's purely about living in the now, as I mentioned, and focusing on my team-mates, focusing on our team management and giving us the best opportunity."
And that's what Elgar really cares about: doing whatever he can do to help South Africa win.