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Match Analysis

How callow South Africa ceded the psychological high ground

Elgar at a loss for answers, as bid to avoid playing by England's rules backfires

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Dean Elgar was left with a fair bit to ponder  •  Getty Images

Dean Elgar was left with a fair bit to ponder  •  Getty Images

Lock the drinks cabinet, please. South Africa will not be having any.
After the promise of a shot of tequila for every mention of Bazball, South Africa don't want to hear it anymore. And they're serious about being sober. "I said I am not speaking about that," Dean Elgar said, even before the question about how he assessed England's proactive approach had been fully asked.
When it was, he answered. "I actually thought they played relatively good Test cricket. I don't think they played extraordinary cricket. I thought they played the correct tempo. I didn't see that B-word coming through at all."
Didn't see, or didn't want to see?
There is no denying that England played a certain way (whether you want to give it a name or not) throughout this series, and especially in the reduced-to-three-days decider. Ben Stokes confirmed that his message to the team was to "produce a result", because in the last Test of the summer "nobody wants to see a draw".
That isn't entirely true. Had South Africa thought it through, they would have realised that playing for a draw, taking four points and closing the gap between themselves and Australia in the World Test Championship table would have been the prudent approach. Instead, they got swept up in the kind of hype they are not used to.
South Africa may not even realise it, but they allowed England to control the narrative as their pre-series tequila jokes gave way to a selection blunder at Old Trafford and batting blow-outs not seen in more than a century at The Oval.
They also revealed their limited experience in dealing with a savvy media and a boisterous public and you can't really blame them. Before this series, South Africa had played more than two years of cricket behind either closed doors or tiny crowds, while only three of the current squad had ever played Test cricket in England before. On top of that, no-one anticipated the scale of emotion that would come after the death of Queen Elizabeth II on the first day of the final Test.
But could it all really be about one silly B-word? Yes, says a man who might know better than most. "Somebody in the press box comes up with Bazball and we know what happens in the English media," Kevin Pietersen said on Sky Sports in his post-match analysis. "The pen is mightier than the sword and Test teams, touring teams will turn up here and they'll be thinking about Bazball. Every single player around the world will be talking about Bazball - from India, to New Zealand to Australia. The psychology pre-Ashes is already happening."
It will be the least of South Africa's concerns as to whether they have done England a favour ahead of next year's Ashes. Instead, they should focus on the consequences this series defeat will have on their own Test ideology going forward.
In this series, they were forced to confront their middle-order shortcomings and make big changes. Rassie van der Dussen (who missed the final Test through injury but had been out of form anyway) and Aiden Markram were swapped out for Ryan Rickelton and Khaya Zondo, but it's far too early to say whether either man can go on to be the solution South Africa are looking for. But it's no secret that South Africa need answers, and need them quickly.
"It's a tough one when guys aren't getting numbers on the board for you," Elgar said. "Sooner or later, your resources are going to be depleted and we are going to have to look elsewhere. We did the right thing for this Test match. We had to use the resources we had, something different, something new, you don't know if you don't give them a try."
But Elgar also continued to throw his weight behind both van der Dussen and Markram, who he thinks can come again. "Aiden has still got a bright future in Test cricket," Elgar said. "He just needs to get numbers behind his belt and go back to the drawing board. He is still too young and too talented not to be playing this level of cricket. When he gets those opportunities to play a four-day game, he's got to nail it like he has done in the past when he was left out and he went back home and he nailed four-day cricket, scored a lot of runs and he got his opportunity again."
That is precisely the problem. Even when Markam was the top-scorer in South Africa's first-class competition, he was not able to translate that form to Test cricket. Since 2018, Markram averages 67.50 from 10 domestic first-class matches, with five centuries. In 18 home Tests in the same period, he averages just over half that: 34.70, with only two hundreds. It's clear that South Africa's domestic breeding ground is not producing enough players who can make the step up and Elgar is unsure how best to address the gap.
"I always bank on experience. I know we don't have that at the Test level. My next best thing is, who do we have in first-class cricket back home, but is that the right solution? We don't know yet," he said. "We've still got a few months before our next series and we've only got a handful of four-day games at home before we leave to Australia. It's a tough thing now, because the guys have to learn the toughest format without a lot of experienced heads around them, which is always something we were aware of. But those are the cards we've been dealt and we've got to find a way to ease the blow."
That upcoming assignment includes a run of Tests in Australia's festive season for the first time since their victorious 2008-09 series. No-one in the current South African squad has any experience of playing a Test in front of a packed MCG or SCG, which will present another challenge. The same three who had experience in England - Elgar, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj, along with Temba Bavuma - are likely to be the only players who have been part of a Test series in Australia before. The scrutiny - remember mint-gate? - will be unending. So how should South Africa avoid making the same mistakes?
"We've been playing good cricket and we've been playing pretty average cricket as a squad, and we need to get that balance right," Elgar said. "Every Test match is going to be something you have to live and die for. That three-Test match series is going to be huge. We've got five massive Tests before June. Even our series against West Indies, we can't take that lightly. I need the guys to have that mentality going forward."
It sounds a little bit like the way England play, with one-pointed focus on every game as a must-win, but for Elgar's sake, South Africa should avoid coming up with any catchphrases that define them.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent