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Feature

Leading through a storm: One year of South Africa Test captain Dean Elgar

The story of a leader who does "not walk away from pressure but walks straight into it"

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
03-Mar-2022
A leader needs a defining trait to underline his era and in Dean Elgar's case it's the ability to walk the talk, according to South Africa's coach Mark Boucher.
"Dean talks a lot but he is prepared to follow it up with actions," Boucher said as South Africa make their way back from drawing the Test series 1-1 in New Zealand.
Their journey home will take 32 hours in total, leaving plenty of time for reflection on their comeback from losing the first Test by an innings and 276 runs to winning the second by 198 runs.
"One of the chats we had was that we were going to be under pressure in the second game. We didn't want to run away from that. We wanted to walk towards that," Boucher said. "Just by him (Elgar), winning the toss and batting, not that he is batting No. 5 or 6, but him being the opening batter speaks words for the character and individual that he is. He is prepared to go out there and front up like he did and . And then the rest of the team just gelled together. They look up to him. He has been fantastic, not just in this series but in the last series as well. The guys back him in a big way."
That will be exactly what Elgar, who is on the eve of completing his first year in the job, wants to hear. On March 4, 2021, he was named South Africa's Test captain, ending an experiment that went wrong with Quinton de Kock and succeeding the highly popular Faf du Plessis. Elgar was not an obvious choice to take over but South Africa's problem was that no-one else was either. He was one of very few players who had held down a regular place in the side over the last five years, was one of very few batters whose average was close to 40 and was the one who bristled at any talk of South Africa's decline. So it was him that was chosen and so far, it's worked out just fine.
Under Elgar, South Africa have yet to lose a Test series, beating West Indies, India and sharing spoils with New Zealand. Though he has yet to score a century in the role, Elgar has contributed four fifties, including a match-winning and series-turning 96* against India in Johannesburg. He has spoken out about the administrative upheaval and criticised the way the coaching staff have been handled and has come out strongly in support of Boucher, who faces a disciplinary hearing in May.
Most notably, he has led the team through a time when South African cricket is set for a sea charge, in the aftermath of the Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings that have polarised the sport even further along racial lines. Elgar captains South Africa's most transformed and diverse cricket team in history and he has managed to get them to band together even in the toughest of situations.
"It's one thing to lose a Test match but the way we lost the first Test was very disappointing," Boucher said. "The nice thing was that there was no sense of panic. There was an understanding of what to bring to the table in the second Test match. The mental space the guys must have been in coming off the battering, to go out there and bat fist was very impressive for me. There were a couple of standout performances but as a unit, we managed to string together a very good Test match."
Boucher singled out centurions Sarel Erwee, who he called "a coach's dream," and Kyle Verreynne for their knocks in the second Test but also had a word for young bowlers Wiaan Mulder and Lutho Sipamla, who were brought into the XI after a period on the sidelines and were part of an inexperienced pace attack that bowled South Africa to victory.
"If you look at the whole Test match, each individual had their part to play. There are always going to be heroes after Test matches and there's probably going to be unsung ones who probably only get recognition in our change room. It's important to recognise them," Boucher said. "Lutho and Wiaan performed their roles within the side. Sometimes you don't need wickets to go your way, you need to perform your role within the side. Everyone did that. It was a true team effort."
South Africa now lie in the top four on the World Test Championship points table and, with a home series against Bangladesh to com0,e could head into winter in a comfortable position to push for a place in the final. "This win will take us to a good situation and if we can carry on with where we left off, learn from mistakes, we are heading down the right road," Boucher said.
Whether they will have Boucher with them on that journey will only be known in the off-season but what is certain is that Elgar will take the team to England, where he first led them while du Plessis' was on paternity leave. Then, Elgar did the job for one Test and could not hand the role back fast enough but that was almost five years ago. Elgar has changed his mind, in words and in deed.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent