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Feature

Down but not out: Tough Dean Elgar hands South Africa their best moment

Long been compared to Graeme Smith, the captain stands tall to inspire South Africa with a gutsy performance

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
07-Jan-2022
Dean Elgar was down. He had been hit on the shoulder and the ribs, but it was the blow from Jasprit Bumrah that ricocheted off his body to hit the grille of his helmet, that grounded him.
He needed on-field treatment but pretended not to. And when he was done, he got hit again. "I think they should stop hitting me because I don't seem to get out," Elgar said. "I draw on that pain. Some call it stupid, some call it brave. If I am willing to put my body on the line, so should everyone else."
Was that a veiled dig at Kagiso Rabada? We'll never know. What we do know is that Elgar approached him before the match about his conduct both on and off the field and demanded that he stepped up. "Playing for your country, you are expected to do that, irrespective of how you are feeling. It's just another article - I am kind of over those articles."
Sorry, Dean. This is another article about how you thrive on toughness. It's another few dozen paragraphs about the way you hacked the ball like you gut a fish, the ones you wore and the bloody-mindedness you showed. But it's also more than that.
Undoubtedly, this is South Africa's best moment of the last three years. They have had Test series victories over an under-strength Sri Lanka and in the West Indies, but not even their four T20 World Cup wins in five matches will equal the sense of occasion that this victory in the New Year's Test brought. It came against the run of play after a trying Boxing Day week.
South Africa entered this Test on the back of an undercooked effort with the ball at SuperSport Park and a batting line-up that could best be described as promising but fragile. Their biggest name, Quinton de Kock, who was due to miss the rest of the series on paternity leave, retired from the longest format altogether. And India brought the strongest seam attack in their history to the venue where they have never lost a Test in this country, the Wanderers. What could possibly go right from there?
Ask Elgar. "I don't think there's a right or wrong way of winning a game of cricket," he said. But there is a way.
It starts with the basics. South Africa's bowlers were much more focused on the opening day. They had two opportunities, at 101 for 2 and at 162 for 4, to press home the advantage but the set batters gave their wickets away. The bowlers bailed them out again, restricting India to a tough, but chase-able total. And even though South Africa had never reached a target of 220 at this ground, and India had one of the most challenging attacks they had faced in recent times, with more than two days to play and a massive point to prove, for Elgar, it was game on. The situation was tailor-made for his stick-it-to-them style of play.
This is going to sound familiar, isn't it? Because he is a left-hander with a leg-side heavy scoring preference, he is rough as rhino skin and now also captain of the Test team, Elgar has long been compared to Graeme Smith and dubbed a mini-Biff. That's true in more ways than just size.
I draw on that pain. Some call it stupid, some call it brave. If I am willing to put my body on the line, so should everyone else.
Dean Elgar
Elgar has scored lots second-innings runs in winning chases, much like Smith used to do. Of Smith's 27 hundreds, four came in successful circumstances. Those were memorable occasions, in Wellington, Birmingham, Perth and Cape Town, and each time, Smith had a wing-man. It was Mark Boucher against New Zealand, Gary Kirsten in England, AB de Villiers with a blistering century against Australia and Hashim Amla at Newlands. Smith averaged 87.76 in successful fourth-innings chases. Elgar averages 78.75 in the same circumstances, with three fifties, including Thursday's 96*.
So, Elgar is not quite half as tall or half as broad as Smith, he has not won half as many matches, and he doesn't have half of the team (if we're honest, he doesn't have any of the team) Smith had. But his performance was doubly impressive.
On resuming on 46 after a lengthy rain delay, which wiped out more than two sessions, Elgar reached his half-century off the eighth ball he faced. R Ashwin bowled it full, and he creamed it through mid-on. It was the best-timed shot of his knock up to that point and then he had to settle in again. He was beaten by Mohammed Shami, squared up by Shardul Thakur, sent one flying over the slips for four (deliberately, of course), and then, with the target approaching 50, showed some real skills. His drive down the ground past Shami and his steer to third man are the shots Elgar should frame. So too, the pull and the upper cut off Mohammed Siraj. And at the end, the flick off the pads that brought the win.
Dean Elgar may sometimes be down. But in this match, he was never out.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent