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Through upheaval and chaos, South Africa show the fighting spirit that has always defined their cricket

Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma are leading sides with modest talent but strong collective willpower

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Dean Elgar celebrates with Kyle Verreynne, New Zealand vs South Africa, 2nd Test, Christchurch, 2nd day, February 26, 2022

Dean Elgar's Test team repaid his faith in them with a commanding victory over New Zealand in Christchurch  •  AFP/Getty Images

Mike Procter was lying in his hospital bed in Durban when Dean Elgar, pitch-side at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, said "We'll bat." The Procter heart that had just been fixed up with a new valve and a double bypass, skipped a beat. "We will whaaat?" the mighty Proc squealed from 7000 miles away, having just watched the commentators' pitch report.
"Did you see that?" he asked me on the phone later in the day, "Honestly, Marcus, the pitch had plenty of grass on it, a must-bowl, if you ask me, especially one down in a two-match series but, geez, they fought hard with the bat and look now, 230-odd, only three down… you've got to hand to Elgar, hey. He's got a lot of guts that guy, he really has. If they win from here, well, what a decision to bat."
And win they did.
In short, the South African team has had a remarkable season. Long outsiders in their home series against India over Christmas and New Year, and longer still away to the Black Caps in February, Elgar's resilient men have beaten the odds, proving themselves a match for the two teams that contested the World Championship Test match final last June.
Beset by political infighting and financial uncertainty, the players rose above the boardroom chaos to remind the world of the essential South African characteristics: spirit and optimism foremost among them.
The soul of that great land had been in their performance, for with it comes the need to dig deep and sit in. It is hard to think of any more impressive South African victories. The wonder of these were the relatively modest level of available talent and the willpower of the collective that overcame it. As Procter added, "It just shows what you can do if you want to do it badly enough. Fantastic!"
After a chop and change or two, the choice of Elgar as captain of the Test team and Temba Bavuma of the short-form teams has proved rather brilliant. Bavuma's calm appraisal of one or two alarming off-field situations has led to an increased sense of authority on the field. His team deserved to qualify for the T20 World Cup semi-finals in the UAE last November, but having lost only one game in the round-robin stage, they fell foul of their marginally inferior run rate.
In January, Bavuma's 50-over fellows thumped India 3-0. The responsibility has moved his batting on the dial too. Increasingly, and on many levels, Bavuma is becoming a formidable cricketer.
Elgar's batting is forged in steel, but we knew that. What we couldn't have imagined is that his captaincy would have such a clear sense of values and direction. Most of these down-to-earth, grind-'em-in men of the willow achieve their results in a bubble of self-discipline, which does not necessarily make for the broader requirements of captaincy.
Not unlike Graeme Smith before him, Elgar says it as he sees it, sticks close to pragmatism and likes to spend his day wondering what the opposition would least like him to do next. Having lost the first match of both series, Elgar told his players that they had it in them to bounce straight back with a win of their own, if only they would believe it. The point being that when he says as much, they look into his eyes and immediately know that, far from loose rhetoric, this is both a show of serious business and absolute confidence in them.
In the second innings of the Christchurch Test, only Devon Conway, a South African now playing for New Zealand, stood between them and the levelling of the series. One wondered what he made of it all. Five years ago, Conway left the land of his birth in pursuit of opportunity - he is not the first and won't be the last. Sure, he is another gifted South African forced to look elsewhere but he readily admits that his inconsistent form in first-class cricket was more of an obstacle than the selection quotas that had denied others. He grew up spending hours at the wicket with his mate Quinton de Kock and the irony that neither was playing for South Africa in the most recent match in New Zealand will not have been lost on them.
When de Kock announced that he was standing back from Test cricket after South Africa's defeat in Centurion, Elgar admitted to surprise. "I sit next to him in the dressing room," he said in a recent documentary about the India series, "and didn't have a clue!" He was pretty disappointed, of course, but quickly turned the conversation to another man's crack at the summit.
Kyle Verreynne's magnificent unbeaten 136 - along with an eye-catchingly assured hundred by the new boy, Sarel Erwee - set up the bowlers to strike hard and fast for South Africa's win in Christchurch and remind everyone that opportunity does come to those who wait patiently. At the start of 2021, Veryenne cannot possibly have thought he would play Test cricket for his country anytime soon. Now, two months on, he has prominently featured in three memorable successes.
His story is a lesson to those who wait less patiently: just be there, in form and ready for the moment, because if you are good enough, invariably it will come. To represent someone else's country is a fine achievement; to represent your own is the fulfilment of a dream. David Bedingham, the 27-year-old batter from Western Province who plays for Durham in English first-class cricket, is that man right now. The whisper is that he hopes to qualify for England three years from now. One hopes the South African selectors have their eye on his every move.
Frankly, with the surrounding noise and the lingering undertone, it is quite something that South African sport continues to compete with the enthusiasm, vigour and glory of yesteryear. It can be reasonably argued that the achievements of today's players outrank those of any other era, so great are the obstacles in their way. The rugby players hold the World Cup, the cricketers have just beaten the best, around ten golfers are in the world top 100. Add in sprinter Wayde van Niekerk and swimmer Chad Le Clos, along with numerous others within lower-profile sports, and you get the picture.
There is an inherent competitiveness in South Africans that seems to come without arrogance or entitlement. You see it in business and even in the arts, every bit as much as you do in sport. It makes for great deeds, life-affirming stories and confirmation that the land, and the life it offers, has been hard-earned.
After defeat in the first match of the India series - a game in which Kagiso Rabada looked as if the joy had gone from his cricket - Elgar took him aside. His message was simple: you are respected by us all, and we are so often inspired by your performances but we need more from you here and we need it now. We need your full engagement, your leadership, your power, your precision. In short, we cannot win this series without you at your talismanic best.
In the next match, at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, where India had never been beaten, Rabada moved through the gears. By the third morning, the fast-moving game was on a knife edge - India 155 for 2 in their second innings, 128 in front with Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane seemingly in control. Rabada rammed the pedal to the floor. He found a beaut of a bouncing legcutter for Rahane, a break back for Pujara, and a couple of snorting bouncers for Rishabh Pant, whose response was to shimmy down the pitch and swish at the next ball, which he nicked to Verreynne behind the stumps. This was pulsating Test match cricket, moments stolen by a modern master, moments that ripped the match from India's grasp. Of course, much was still to be done by the others but KG had opened the door for his mates to walk in and take control.
It was then that Elgar played one of the innings of his life, the unbeaten 96 that took his team across the line. Like a boxer, he was spent by the time the stumps were pulled, but rarely, if ever, had he felt more satisfied. His was both a feat of endurance and an innings of excellence at exactly the moment it was needed. A kaleidoscope of bruises were the physical evidence; the chance to take the series to Cape Town its mental power point.
At Newlands two rookies added to their fast growing reputation: one slight of build, strong of mind and technically sound; the other 6ft 8in of skin and bone and a huge heart.
Keegan Petersen made runs in both innings of this decider, riding Jasprit Bumrah's high bounce and working with the sideways movement of the ball like it was an old friend. Hard on himself after mistakes cost him both his wickets in Centurion, he played relatively risk-free cricket on awkward pitches at the Wanderers and Newlands without ever allowing himself to be governed by India's fine attack. It has been a long, slow burn for 28-year-old from Paarl but South Africa now has its own KP.
Marco Jansen took 7 for 91 in 37.3 overs of high-quality pace bowling in this same decider, admitting freely that the stifling nerves on Boxing Day morning were already a thing of his cricketing past. He was the perfect foil for Rabada, hammering away mainly back of length and giving nothing to some of the most gifted strokeplayers in the game. There was something of the young Glenn McGrath in him, albeit with a different arm, and, as he fills out, one can only see a similar path to the one taken by the great Australian bowler. Like McGrath, he too was happy to mix it and one memorable exchange with Bumrah at the Wanderers proved him a worthy successor to the fine and feisty South African fast bowlers of the past - men who won't take no for an answer.
We are almost done here but a word for Mark Boucher is required to complete the story. In the documentary mentioned above, Elgar, Bavuma and others in the team speak highly of their coach, with Elgar pointing out that Boucher is starting his best work and that to lose him now would be a waste. Boucher, of course, has a racism charge to fight against the governing body - Cricket South Africa - that employs him. This comes from the findings made before Christmas by the Social Justice and Nation Building ombudsman. Imagine going to work under such pressure and delivering in the way he has! For the sake of South African cricket, the hope is that his name is cleared and the game at large can move on.
The streetfighter in Boucher is exactly the sort of quality the team needs right now and the recoveries from defeat in the first matches of both the series referenced here have his fingerprints all over them. In fact, this triumvirate - Elgar, Bavuma, Boucher - is the way forward. The terrific cricket played by South Africa in the past two months is the best evidence of that.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator