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Dean Elgar's quiet achievers lay another marker for resurgent South Africa

Crushing three-day victory belies under-stated credentials of hugely impressive team

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
What does it feel like to win at Lord's? For Kagiso Rabada, already hailed among the game's greats at just over 27 years old, to get his name on the honours' board? For a self-labelled "proper Dutchman", Anrich Nortje, to rip out the core of the English batting line-up? For Dean Elgar, whose first trip to the venue was as stand-in captain in 2017, when he looked anything but a permanent leader?
It feels like solid confirmation that this team is finally getting somewhere. Or at least it should.
It was just over a year ago that South Africa were ranked seventh on the ICC's Test table and heading to West Indies with genuine concern that they may be beaten there for the first time since their one-off return to Test cricket in 1992. Fast-forward 15 months and not only are South Africa top of the WTC points' table, but they've got there with a series win over the world No.1s, India, a drawn rubber against the current holders of the WTC, New Zealand and now by ending one of the most audaciously successful streaks England have enjoyed in a home summer.
And they've done it with a group of players that some may label a motley crew, lacking significant experience, strong reputations and even the kind of super-egos that makes professional sport the stuff of celebrity. Only three of South Africa's current squad have previous Test experience in England. Many of the rest had never even been to Lord's before and spent time earlier in the week just soaking up the feeling of arriving, as cricketers, to their spiritual and sentimental home.
But even with the full house and the media hype and the pressure, South Africa were doing more than just being. They were bossing it. At the end of only three days of this series in England, the birthplace of the empire, they were able to nail their colours in triumph to some seriously prime property on the visiting change-room balcony. That's the kind of decolonisation we can all get behind.
Since their first post-readmission tour here in 1994, South Africa have raised their flag five times at Lord's. Only Australia have won the same number of Tests in the same period of time. Australia have also won the most number of series in England since 1992 - three. South Africa can equal that on this trip but that might be thinking too far ahead. For now, it's about - as Elgar has started to say - "staying in the moment," and realising how (to use another Elgarism) "bloody good" South Africa have been.
This performance stands out because it came from a team who did things their predecessors were conditioned not to do, like bringing on a spinner in the eighth over with three short catchers, and then seeing him take the two wickets that started the victory march. And they were able to do it because they have resources previous teams have not had.
There are four genuine quicks in this South African XI, all of whom can bowl 140kph-plus and when they're not doing that, they're asking other questions. Two of those, Marco Jansen and Nortje (and we could even push that to three if we include Rabada) have some ability with the bat as well, which gives South Africa a deceptively long line-up. Jansen can come in as early as No.6 and, with Maharaj's batting also nothing to scoff at, the only real bunny is Lungi Ngidi. The cracks in the line-up can, to a degree, be covered by the lower-order. Because there are cracks, that we cannot ignore.
Since Elgar took over, excluding Zimbabwe who have played one Test, South Africa have scored the least number of centuries among Test-playing nations - just three. One of the players who notched up a hundred, Quinton de Kock, has retired from the format. Two others in the top six, Keegan Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen, haven't yet scored Test hundreds at all. When Elgar talks about the negatives he always has to try to find, this has to be one of them, but he should not reflect on it too harshly.
While it's a no-brainer that big scores are the building blocks of big wins, South Africa have shown that those don't have to be individual big scores or even big partnerships. Since June last year, South Africa have only had two century stands (Zimbabwe have had fewer) but 33 half-century partnerships, the second-most of any team after England. Smaller, more consistent contributions have allowed their batting line-up to do just enough. And, of course, they have the attack to compensate for the runs they leave unscored.
In the same period that the batters have struggled, South Africa have had the joint-most numbers of five-fors, and have produced series-changing spells that are made for highlights packages.
The attack allows Elgar's "margin for error to be a lot bigger", and he doesn't seem to be erring too much as he has learnt how to use his arsenal strategically. The quickest of his bowlers doesn't get the new ball, so an opposition line-up cannot relax when the change bowlers come on. Imagine seeing off Rabada only to face Nortje.
Maharaj is not in the mould of the classical South African spinner who bowls an over before lunch, another before tea, and then tries to hold an end in the third session. He is "world-class", as Elgar put it, and Elgar trusts his gut feel for when to bring him on. Together they set creative fields and get results. As a collective, the attack pushes each other and Elgar still wants more. "I need to achieve; them to want to achieve more," Elgar said. "Once they all buy in to that, which I am sure they are doing with great victories like this, we're going to be a pretty special bowling attack."
Because of the chaos of the last three years, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in South African cricket who doesn't think of cautious as optimism's first name. Despite everything the Test team has achieved since Elgar took over the captaincy, the words "great" and "best" still don't quite seem to be the right ones to describe them. But there are others that Elgar used.
"What we've laid down over the last year has been pretty solid," he said. "It hasn't been fake, it's been unique. It's been real. It hasn't been far-fetched. These are our team goals that I have with the coaches. It's not unrealistic. It's pretty achievable. As a player group, we are a special bunch and we play bloody good cricket when we are doing well."
That's what it feels like to win at Lord's.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent