India had never won a Test at the Centurion before the series. South Africa had never won a Test against India at the Wanderers. On Thursday, both the records stand shattered, the fortresses breached and history, etched. The chief architect in both the victories – openers.
South Africa are 211/3, requiring 30 runs for a famous win. Mohammed Siraj not just ran to bowl but bent his back alright, the ball leapt up and above Rishabh Pant’s goalkeeper like-reflex, thumping the boundary ropes. The camera panned to Jasprit Bumrah, who had conceded 70 runs off his 17 overs, his costliest spell away from home.
The sense of dejection, sorrow and dismay was all over Bumrah’s face. India were down, physically and mentally, they were totally drained, the voices went silent. The chirpy slip cordon came to a resignation, all in front of one leader, Dean Elgar.
Elgar isn’t the most celebrated opener in the longest format. Every time he walks out to bat, there is a sense of uncertainty to his luck but one thing that can’t quite be matched – his grit. Modern day cricketers are loud, aggressive and some charismatic but Elgar is built old-school, he does not often sledge opposition but at the Wanderers, he was uncharacteristic.
The altercation between Rahul and Elgar stood out after day two’s play. Elgar was involved, figuratively and literally with India’s stand-in skipper. It was unprecedented but the noise from outside the world was too loud.
And the South African skipper shattered it, in his own fashion: 500 minutes of tough, gritty batting.
Gladiator by day, Elgar by night
Perhaps, Elgar as a batter isn’t the most pleasing of batters. If a comparison could be made, he has this enigma and magnetic ability to attract all the body blows. Since 2018, he has taken more than 50 blows on his gloves, body and helmet. Maybe not as much as the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara but still enough to keep him sleepless.
“I am yet to see the bruises (the blows he received), but it's a big motivation to go and play for your country. Whatever I'm going through, it's important to see the bigger picture and the bigger picture is to win games for your country,” Elgar said in the post-match presentation.
171 minutes in the first innings, Elgar was never the most confident of batters and his innings was not the most convincing of ones, with plenty of misses, edges, close calls before his 120-ball vigil was ended by Shardul Thakur, after surviving the hostile spell from Bumrah, Siraj and Mohammed Shami. He wasn’t entirely in control but where he was in control was over not throwing his wicket away on a tough day.
His contribution was perhaps minimal, only 28, but his gritty knock showed the other batters that ‘long-stay’ was the best way inside the Bullring. Like in a bull fight, where the riders get the limelight over the bulls, his knock in the first innings was superseded by Keegan Petersen’s classy knock and Temba Bavuma’s counter-attacking knock but his impact, was etched.
2018, same opposition, similar bowling attack, Elgar battled 409 minutes across both innings but the falling cards around him left him stranded. It was a bittersweet feeling, he was successful but the team lost. In 2022, he had another shot at glory, this time, with an Indian unit, who had just breached the South African Fortress.
Well, rather against an Indian bowling attack, which earlier breached Australia’s fortress at the Gabba and England’s, at Lord’s. This wasn’t the same attack as in 2018, it was a meaner, fitter and an upgraded bowling attack.
But as his opposition, Elgar also grew in leap and bounds. He had more responsibility on his shoulders, like opening for the country against one of the best bowling attacks wasn’t quite enough.
Elgar and the shot at redemption
There is something special about the South African openers, especially left-handers, who turn into skippers. Graeme Smith, Kepler Wessels and Elgar. While driving through the covers, they leave a long-lasting memory but the best version of them is when they are defending. They are tough, gritty and often have a warrior-like mentality.
On day three and four, Elgar didn’t have an option. India were folded twice with the bat for a total well within the vicinity of the host. But South Africa lost two wickets, first Markram and then Petersen. After fighting it out physically on the field, against the mean and nasty Indian bowlers, he had a tougher challenge in front of him, mentally.
Constant showers delayed start of play on day four, victory was well within South Africa’s grasp but one mistake also would leave them tumbling. While in 2018, he was just another senior figure, in 2022, he was a leader. If he played a rash shot, the media would be all over him, especially after losing the key to the Fortress.
And on day three, when Thakur’s delivery smacked his gloves, he went down, his right ring finger was sprayed, iced, plastered and mentally, he was flabbergasted. South Africa is one of those countries where a batter is never in complete control, there is always a variable bouncing bullet having their name on it. There were many for Elgar but like a perfectly-trained ninja, he dodged it all.
On the penultimate day of the Test, he dodged the last of it, the mental one. He came out, sharp in focus and strong in mental strength. The chirpy Indian corridor always were in his ears but by the time he walked out, with his helmet raised, his image was definitely etched in India’s mind.
As a skipper, the left-hander has led absolutely from the front, a staggering average of 48.17 with the bat, three fifties and more importantly, showing the other batters that toughness is the name of the game. 308 balls, 81.8% in control but more importantly, with a false-shot percentage of just 15.9 in the second innings, the opener stood out.
“When you perform like this over the period of four days, it does make you forget the pain in doing so,” he ended in the presentation.
Over four days, Elgar showed what most openers fail to in modern-day cricket, the determination to finish off games. While he took several body blows, he delivered the biggest one of the nights, the blow that killed India’s hopes of maintaining their record at the venue.
He might still wake up whining in pain but at the Wanderers, he definitely ended up with the biggest pleasure, of leading South Africa over the line against a tough unit, in the form of India.