Dean Elgar did not blame off-field issues, quarantine or the absence of a warm-up match for South Africa's lack of intensity in the first Test in Christchurch but thinks his team may be trying too hard in their quest to compete.
Like coach Mark Boucher, Elgar could not completely "wrap my head," around how South Africa have gone from the highs of beating India a month ago to the low of their second-biggest Test defeat ever, but could not fault their effort despite acknowledging a lack in intensity.
"The harder you try, the more you fail," Elgar said, in reference to his bowlers' inability to hold an end on a seamer-friendly surface. In 117.5 overs, South Africa only sent down 15 maiden overs, compared to New Zealand's 28 in 91 overs across both innings, and allowed the hosts to bat them out of the match.
"It's extremely frustrating being a captain and the ball has been hit both sides of the wicket. You can't set a field for that," Elgar said. "That's down to execution and the skills department. I can't say it was nerves. We were so deep into the game, those nerves were out of our system. It's extremely difficult to build pressure when runs are being scored on both sides of the wicket. It also boils down to guys trying too hard. The harder you try, the more you fail. That might have been a scenario but it's not an excuse. It allowed their middle-to-lower order to come in and dictate the pace of play. That was down to us not being consistent enough."
Ultimately, though, South Africa lost the match in the first innings, when they were dismissed for their lowest total against New Zealand - 95 - and looked completely at sea against the moving ball on a green top. Although Elgar said it "would have been nice to have played a warm-up game," in the build-up to the match he indicated conditions at Lincoln University, where South Africa trained, equipped them well for the Hagley Oval and agreed that not having a competitive fixture before the Tests was not a reason for their collapse. "I am not going to use quarantine as an excuse. We are here to represent our country and we need to be firing by the time match day comes. If that is an excuse, it's a very weak excuse to be using."
Instead, he explained the batters' issues as a case of being too defensive, with 13 of the dismissals coming from catches behind the wicket. "When the ball is going around a little bit, you still have to have a positive mindset. You will have to look to score but in the same breath, you have to remain pretty disciplined within your game plans. That ties in with our intensity. That is one area that I can put my finger on," he said.
"Maybe it's the mental game he is fighting. We know he is a quality player. He is only one innings away from turning a lot of things around for him."
Elgar on Aiden Markram
While it is unfair to single out one batter from South Africa's poor performance, the spotlight has fallen on opener-turned-No. 3 Aiden Markram, who averages less than 26 in his last 20 Tests and 9.7 in his last 10 innings. Elgar still backs Markram as a quality player who is one good innings away from glory but admitted there is an issue around his form, which is probably caused by the same over-eagerness that affected the attack. "It's not foreign that he has been struggling. I am sure that conversation will come up with the selectors," Elgar said. "Maybe it's the mental game he is fighting.
"We know he is a quality player. He is only one innings away from turning a lot of things around for him. It's also the same case of trying too hard. The conversation around his position has been in the media. The selectors have to have conversations around that. It's a very valid question around him as a person and his capacity in the side. He needs to stop trying so hard. Naturally he is a gifted player and he is one score away from turning things around."
Markam was moved down into the spot Keegan Petersen left vacant when he contracted Covid-19 but essentially operated as an opener in this match and could find himself benched when Petersen returns for the home series against Bangladesh, or sooner. South Africa have Ryan Rickelton, who is averaging over 100 in first-class cricket this season with three hundreds from his last five innings, in reserve. They were considering playing him in the first Test and will likely do so again in the second. It would seem a no-brainer, even though Boucher said the team management decided a line-up with Rickleton was, "how we felt the line-up needed to be," and selection convener Victor Mpitsang told ESPNcricinfo Rickleton was overlooked because Zubayr Hamza has more experience.
Elgar was asked if he was happy with team selection and indicated he was, with the debate in his mind over the ratio of batters to bowlers, rather than which batters were being used. "I was very comfortable with the XI we selected. I am a captain that is pro having a spinner from a stability point of view but history tells you at the Hagley Oval, spin doesn't have much effect. Playing in foreign conditions you have to go with what history tells you," he said. "I was comfortable with the four-seamer approach, knowing that against India we only used four seamers. As I sit here now, I am pretty comfortable with the 7-4 split but the next few days will be interesting for us on this very topic."
After losing in three days, South Africa have given themselves two extra days off before the second Test starts on Friday and Elgar said they will use the time to mull over selection and ponder why they appeared so flat in the first Test, knowing that it is not the myriad off-field issues that continue to plague South African cricket. "It's not foreign to us with regards to what's been happening off the field. As a group we've worked through that and worked it out already. I don't see that as being an influence in our camp," he said. "It (the poor performance) is something I am also trying to wrap my head around. I was trying to process it last night and still haven't come to anything yet. Hopefully in the next day or two I'll be able to put my finger on why."