'Hard leader' Elgar adopts carefree approach in search of big runs

The captain's rapid starts have helped South Africa set a more proactive tone, but the dearth of big innings - centuries - have hurt the team

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Dean Elgar has scored a half-century each time he has batted this series  •  Lee Warren/Gallo Images

Dean Elgar has scored a half-century each time he has batted this series  •  Lee Warren/Gallo Images

Dean Elgar might have to learn about tact and toxic masculinity, looking at his comments about the spirit in which this series against Bangladesh is being played, but he needs no advice about taking responsibility at the top of the South Africa batting line-up.
He scored his third successive half-century of the series, and fourth of 2022, to become the second-highest run-getter of the year so far, and South Africa's leading batter since taking over the captaincy last year.
Unlike many of his iconic, and defiant, knocks - think about the unbeaten 96 against India in Johannesburg - in this series, Elgar has batted in an uncharacteristically carefree fashion. His last two fifties (off 66 and 60 balls respectively) are the second- and third-fastest of his career, and have helped South Africa set a more proactive tone at the start of the match, something they have not always been able to do.
It helped Elgar that Bangladesh's new-ball bowlers often bowled too short, inviting the pull and the cut, and that he had the patient Sarel Erwee, who leaves the ball well, to hold fort at the other end. It also helped that this is Elgar's favourite run-scoring ground, and on Friday, he became the leading run-getter at the venue, leapfrogging Jacques Kallis. But mostly, it helps that as his first home summer as captain comes to a close, Elgar is playing with the kind of authority demanded of him.
There's no doubt that Elgar is in charge, that this team is taking on his signature of toughness, and moulding itself in his image. "He is leading from the front," Keegan Petersen, who shared in an 81-run second-wicket stand with Elgar and scored 64 of his own on the first day of the second Test, said. "He has been extremely consistent, with him having a young team to lead. He leads the way properly for us. He is a hard leader, and he expects us to be at our best all the time."
But, just as Elgar the batter, and Elgar the speaker, are not finished articles, neither is South Africa's line-up. What they are missing is an individual batter who goes big. On Friday, their first-four pairings put on partnerships of fifty-plus for the first time in more than a decade, since the Centurion Test against India in 2010, but no one was able to score a century. In fact, South Africa's dearth of home hundreds stretches for more than a year.
"I feel sometimes fifties and outs get the game into the balance most of the time, whereas hundreds would take us ahead"
Keegan Petersen
Collectively, they have not scored a century since Elgar's 127 against Sri Lanka in January 2021, five Tests ago. In the interim, they have managed four centuries away - Aiden Markram in Pakistan, Quinton de Kock in West Indies and Erwee and Kyle Verreynne in New Zealand - but the closest they have come to three figures on their turf is Elgar against India.
The conclusion many have come to is that because of the difficulty of batting conditions in South Africa, hundreds are not the yardstick, but opposition batters have put paid to that theory. Since South Africa's last home hundred, there have been four centuries scored by opposition batters, all of them from the subcontinent: Dimuth Karunaratne, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant and Mahmudul Hasan Joy.
The result is that South Africa, at home, are not posting the kind of totals that they want to and often squander an advantage. On the first day of the second Test, they went from 184 for 2 to 271 for 5 and though three wickets for 87 is hardly what anyone would define as a collapse, it could be the difference between a score of 350 or so and one of 420-plus, and South Africa know it. "The few wickets we lost towards the back end levelled it out a little bit. It would have been nice to be three-down," Petersen said, while also emphasising how the absence of centuries allows the opposition back into the game. "Hundreds would put us in better positions. I feel sometimes fifties and outs get the game into the balance most of the time, whereas hundreds would take us ahead."
And the proof is in the numbers. In 17 home Tests since the 2019-20 summer, South Africa have managed a total of over 400 only once, against a severely weakened Sri Lanka attack. It's a statistic they would want to improve as they hope to challenge for a playoff spot in the World Test Championship.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent