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Elgar on de Kock retirement: 'I was pretty shocked'

He wants his team to get over the news as soon as possible as they look to bounce back against India

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Dean Elgar was "pretty shocked" by Quinton de Kock's decision to retire from Test cricket but has asked the South African squad to "move on" quickly as they seek to level the series against India.
de Kock, who was due to miss the second and third Tests on paternity leave, retired from Test cricket entirely at the conclusion of the Boxing Day Test. He announced his decision to the team on the evening of December 30 but had told some members about his plans to step away earlier. Elgar did not seem to be one of those. "I was pretty shocked. I wasn't aware this was going to happen, but sitting down with Quinny that evening and him explaining to me the reason, I very much respect his decision and fully understand the space he is in," Elgar said. "Hopefully it doesn't come back one day and he still wishes he was part of our red-ball set-up."
Despite supporting de Kock's choice, Elgar did not take the news entirely well, especially as it comes on the back of several other issues affecting South African cricket, on and off the field. "It's disappointing. Not having Quinny around is disappointing for me," he said. "It's something I need to get over because I know there's other talented players within our system that I need to give a lot of attention to now and that's perfectly fine. As tough as it is, it's one of those things you need to crack on with and get over as quickly as possible. The players respect the environment, we've realised we've had quite a few setbacks over recent times and this is just another one we need to be clever around and we need to get over because the game moves on. I don't see this affecting the players and them still being shocked about his retirement."
But de Kock's decision, at just 29 years old, has prompted a deeper look into the sustainability of Test cricket, especially in an age of lucrative T20 leagues and long international tours in bio-bubbles. Though there is talk of others, both in South Africa and elsewhere, opting to give up the longest format, Elgar does not think that is imminent. "I don't think his decision is going to jeopardise Test cricket. His reasons are his reasons and we as a group respect that. We have to get over it and move on. The game moves on when guys retire. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced quite a few big South African retirements and one thing I have realised is that the game continues. You're not immortal and the game definitely doesn't stop for you."
Elgar debuted in 2012 and in every year since then there has been at least one high-profile retirement. "Tell me about it," he said, when reminded of some of those who have walked away in the time he has been part of the side. "If it was up to me, I wouldn't have had any of those guys retire but retirements are part and parcel of the game. I don't think it's the kind of thing you can control because it's out of your hands as another player."
Which brought Elgar to what he can control, starting with what he has done behind the scenes to keep spirits high as South Africa, at 1-0 down, enter a must-win match at the Wanderers. "I don't think I can say the words that I've been saying recently but we've had hard chats," he said. "I have had a lot of talks with the guys, even if it's in a personal capacity. I take the guys aside and just chat, give them a little bit of affirmation to put him in a better mind space."
One word that has come up in those conversations is responsibility. Elgar has said: "Players have to take responsibility. You can talk and talk until there's action. I said to the guys: 'I need to see actions'. Test cricket is a hard and ruthless environment and if you want to survive and be successful in this format you need to ask yourself the hard questions and respond to those questions. That's the culture I was brought up with and I want the other guys to think about it. They're not bad players. They haven't become any weaker. They just need to be mentally a bit more switched on and understand Test cricket is bloody tough and you're facing some of the best bowlers in the world now. You need to put on your big boy pants and react to what's happened."
The batting group seems to have been on the receiving end of most of the chats, with Elgar pointing the first fingers at himself and his opening partner Aiden Markram, who have not posted a stand greater than four in their last three Tests. "Aiden and I need to look after the new ball. That allows our Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 to play as naturally as possible. We know as an opening pair we need to get us off to a better start to give the guys a clearer mindset going in," Elgar said.
He also wants more from the middle order, specifically vice-captain Temba Bavuma. "You need big hundreds to compete and win. We are aware of that. We were very disappointed that we [just] had two fifties [by Elgar himself and Bavuma] in the previous match, knowing that I can score big hundreds," he said. "And Temba needs to push on. He needs to stop getting those good fifties and getting those hundreds because we know how far it goes with regards to setting up the team."
The bowlers have not been spared either and their lack of incision with the new ball has been under the microscope. "With the ball, there were still a few areas we could fine tune, like maybe making them play a little with the new ball, especially when we are bowling upfront," Elgar said.
India's openers put on 117 and South Africa only took three wickets on the first day before returning to claim 55 for 7 on the third. One of the reasons for South Africa's slow start may have been personnel related as the most in-form quick Duanne Olivier was not available to play the Boxing Day Test but he is available for the Wanderers. Elgar would not give away much about South Africa's combination except to say that on a pitch that will offer better balance between bat and ball, they are unlikely to go all-pace.
"I am always a fan of having a frontline spin bowler," Elgar said. "He is someone I can throw the ball to and he can try to bring down the run rate. Keshav [Maharaj] adapts to whatever conditions are put in front of him. I trust that he is a very smart and clever cricketer and having a left-arm spinner bowling to the Indian batters - 10 right-hand batters - is something for us to utilise."
Elgar expects the surface to be far less spicy than the one South Africa prepared for India in 2018, which was rated poor by the ICC for uneven bounce. "The surface will be playing a lot better than it has in recent times. They have a new groundsman in Evan [Flint] and I think he is trying to make it a little bit more batter friendly or a little more of a better cricket wicket that creates good Test cricket. So we have to put our hands up and take ownership of our positions. We've been echoing a lot of positivity throughout the group. Hopefully we can adopt the language we have been speaking in the last few days."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent