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Match Analysis

Away from home and written off, Dean Elgar's South Africa showcase resilience of the good old days

"It was never easy to just beat us in a Test, and we proved that again" - Rabada on the series-squaring win

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj formed an excellent partnership, New Zealand v South Africa, 2nd Test, 4th day, Christchurch, February 28, 2022

Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj took three wickets each in the second innings  •  AFP/Getty Images

They are a long way from the team that went nine years unbeaten on the road between 2006 and 2015, but South Africa's victory in the second Test in Christchurch served up a reminder of their ability away from home. Not only did they beat New Zealand, the defending Test world champions, but they also did it at a venue they had never played at before this tour, and where conditions are considered to be heavily stacked in favour of the home side.
New Zealand had only lost one out of ten Test matches at Hagley Oval before this Test, and of their eight wins, three had come by an innings. On a seamer-friendly surface, they are known to bowl the opposition out cheaply and then bat as though they are operating on a completely different pitch. The first Test was a case in point.
Despite all of that, Dean Elgar went against the grain by choosing to bat first and including Keshav Maharaj, the only specialist spinner in the XI, in anticipation of pitch deterioration. History suggested Elgar was making a mistake, but the last five days proved him right.
And Kagiso Rabada explained the decision was made on evidence, not the ground's reputation.
"This wicket was a lot drier [than in the first Test], from looking at it with the naked eye and had a lot less grass on it," he said after South Africa squared the series. "When you walked on it, the spikes almost sunk in. That tells you it's going to be a bit slow. We knew when the Test moved forward, it would get drier and the footmarks would be created for Keshav to exploit. That was the thinking. In the end, it was the right decision."
"If you have a look at previous teams, the word that always fits us best is resilience. It was never easy to just beat us in a Test, and we proved that again"
Kagiso Rabada
South Africa scored their first total of over 300 batting first since April 2018, and after that, Maharaj took four wickets - including three in the second innings - to justify all of Elgar's decisions and underline South Africa's capacity to come back after a heavy defeat in the first Test. After that defeat, no one - not coach Mark Boucher or Elgar himself or any of the players who were put up for the media - could explain why the team was so low on energy, and neither did they make it a priority to find out.
"There was no use harping on about how badly we played," Rabada said. "As much as we needed to recognise the faults we made, we still needed to put game plans in place to make sure we adapt as quickly as possible. It was about understanding where we went wrong and coming up with game plans and tactics, and also mentally coming back and winning the second test. It was about waking up and rocking up, and executing game plans."
One of the main things South Africa needed was a better start with the bat, and a 111-run opening stand between Elgar and Sarel Erwee in the first innings gave them that. They also needed players to score centuries, and Erwee and Kyle Verreynne ticked that box too. Their batting showed depth and fortitude, which allowed the bowling attack to operate with a degree of freedom and natural aggression.
Put together, it was among the most complete performances South Africa have delivered in recent times, not least because it came on the back of their second-biggest defeat ever.
"If you have a look at previous teams, the word that always fits us best is resilience," he said. "It was never easy to just beat us in a Test, and we proved that again."
Ultimately, New Zealand were also unable to beat South Africa because of the momentum Rabada himself seized with a 34-ball 47 with the bat as well as two wickets in his opening spell in the second innings, which set the visitors up for a series-equalling win. Together with Marco Jansen, Rabada is the joint-leading wicket-taker in Tests this year so far, but he cautioned against over-hyping his current form.
"It's very seldom that you feel at your best," he said. "It's all about adapting and trusting your strengths, and trying to do all you can. You try and create your own luck with hard work and tactical thinking, and let the rest just happen. It's about trying to stick to the process and keep refining."
That is what South Africa as a unit have been saying for more than two years, as they have rebuilt, stumbled and rebuilt again under Boucher. Their record is not what it used to be, but there are "good signs for the future," as Rabada put it.
And good signs from the past too. Since March 2017, New Zealand have lost only three out of 23 Tests at home, two of those to South Africa. Since the start of 2021, only Pakistan (five) and India (four) have won more Tests away from home than South Africa, with both teams having played more Tests in the same period.
In an era where winning on the road is becoming increasingly difficult, South Africa are showing that they are among the teams that can do it, still, which only bodes well for their next overseas assignment - in England this winter.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent