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South Africa's Test team in 'special place' after acing challenging 2021-22 season

Dean Elgar pleased with progress after a summer in which South Africa won 13 out of 19 matches across formats

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
The South Africa players pose with the trophy after beating Bangladesh 2-0 in the Test series  •  AFP/Getty Images

The South Africa players pose with the trophy after beating Bangladesh 2-0 in the Test series  •  AFP/Getty Images

Dean Elgar and Mark Boucher, South Africa's Test captain and coach, assessed this summer as a success after two Test series wins, an ODI clean-sweep over India, albeit not part of the World Cup Super League, and a better-than-expected showing at the T20 World Cup, which saw South Africa narrowly miss out on the semi-finals.
South Africa won 13 out of 19 matches across all formats in 2021-22, including five Test wins. They lie second on the World Test Championship (WTC) points table, and are in a strong position to compete for a place in the final - which would have seemed unlikely when they slipped to seventh shortly before the end of the previous WTC cycle.
"We've had an extremely successful summer, not just as a Test side but as a cricketing nation," Elgar said. "I think we are on the right path, doing things in the correct way. I am extremely proud of the Test summer we've had and the depth we've shown with regards to our selection pool. I am extremely proud of the group of players that we fielded."
South Africa started showing signs of their development as a Test side when they chased down record totals at the Wanderers and Newlands to go from 1-0 down against India to taking the series 2-1. Then, they recovered from a humiliating defeat inside three days in New Zealand to win the next match and share the series before sweeping aside Bangladesh 2-0 without their entire frontline pace pack on surfaces that were more subcontinental than South African.
For the first time since readmission, South Africa included two specialist spinners in their Test XI, and Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer took 20 wickets between them in the second innings of both the Durban and Gqeberha Tests to indicate South Africa's strategy around slower bowling has changed. "These have been completely different conditions. We always knew the wickets would have more turn, especially at these two venues," Boucher said. "It's given guys the opportunity to come out here and play a different brand of cricket, which has been very good to watch."
Despite their bowling success, South Africa have acknowledged that their batting has not been up to the standard they would have liked. There were no centuries scored in the five home Tests and only one total over 400 in the season, which is something Elgar wants to see change.
"We need to notch up a few more hundreds," he said. "Our senior batters, when we get into good positions, we need to get those three figure marks because we know how much pressure that puts on the opposition. We haven't nailed down those hundreds. That's the one area of focus we are extremely aware of and we are working bloody hard to get those hundreds. Maybe it's a case of stop trying too hard and focus on the moment."
South Africa had two scores in the 90s - Elgar's unbeaten 96 against India in Johannesburg and Temba Bavuma's 93 in the first innings in Durban - and both came from the leadership duo. Elgar and Bavuma are the leading run-getters for South Africa in Tests this year and have formed a senior core for the rest of the batters to build around. For Boucher their contrasting personalities but shared vision for South Africa is what makes them key to the current set-up.
"They came in as leaders in a tough time and they have really gelled together," Boucher said. "They've rubbed off on each other. They are completely different characters but they've got one goal, which is to try to get us back to where we should be. They feed off each other, they speak to each other a lot, which is good, and you can see it in their own personal results as well. They're in good form and leading from the front. We are in good hands with them."
For Elgar, the Gqeberha Test marked the end of his first home season as captain, which coincided with Covid-19 protocols and restrictions, and off-field drama that continues to hang over the team. Boucher will face a disciplinary hearing in May, with CSA seeking his dismissal over his handling of issues of race, which means his future is uncertain. South Africa could take on their next Test assignment, against England in August, with a different backroom staff and another period of rebuilding.
It's too early for Elgar to think about what that could mean for the second half of the current WTC and the future but whatever it is, he is ready for it.
"Everything comes with a challenge. I like challenges which is why I am still playing Test cricket at nearly 35," he said. "I still feel I've got a lot of good years left and maybe even my best years left in me. If was younger, I might not have enjoyed it as much. This is still a massive privilege. I've enjoyed it so far. The last year has been testing off the field but I've got an amazing core of players around me that understand me as a character, as a player and a person and the nature of cricket I want to play going forward. Slowly, everyone has bought into it. We are in a very special place."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent