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No longer pushovers, South Africa under Elgar are a force to be reckoned with

Last updated on 01 Mar 2022 | 09:25 AM
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No longer pushovers, South Africa under Elgar are a force to be reckoned with

The NZ series might have ended 1-1, but SA have every reason to consider it a victory and celebrate it like one

There are decisions that make eyebrows raise, and then there are decisions that make one go, “Sweet Jesus, what on earth are they even thinking?”

On Friday, Dean Elgar’s choice to bat first in the second Test in Christchurch looked like a lunatic call that was incomprehensible in every way.

Prior to Elgar’s decision, no captain in history had won the toss and opted to bat in a Test at the Hagley Oval. In the preceding 19 Tests in New Zealand only once had any visiting side willingly chosen to bat - Joe Root’s England at the Bay Oval in 2019 - and that turned out to be a catastrophe, with the Black Caps inflicting an innings defeat. 

And to top everything, it was only a week ago that the Proteas had been rolled over for 95 on the first day at the very same venue after being inserted into bat. 

Really, it made no sense for Elgar and South Africa to NOT bowl.

Five days on, what we can infer, then, is that this Proteas unit, led by Elgar, is simply built different. 

They illustrated this fact against India by nonchalantly knocking off two seemingly difficult fourth-innings chases when history said that they stood no chance. Yet again, they’ve defied the odds - thrice now, in the span of two months, against the two best sides in the world. 

It does seem that this group’s ability to bring out the best when it has its back against the wall is no longer a coincidence. And this drastically different mindset from the Proteas that has been on display since June, can and must be attributed to the leadership of Elgar, a cricketer built on grit, determination and toughness.

It is worth remembering that this is pretty much the same core of players that imploded in Pakistan last year, were humiliated in India in late 2019 and were mauled at home by England prior to the pandemic. Not too long ago, the future looked extremely bleak.

Since Elgar has taken over as skipper, however, his values as a player have rubbed off on the side. It has reinvigorated and brought a new sense of energy and belief to every player, and the entire team looks unrelated to its previous feeble self. 

On paper, the result of this series will go down as a draw. South Africa, though, have every reason to consider this a victory and celebrate it like one. 

It is one thing to bounce back from one of the biggest defeats in your history against the second-ranked team in the world in its own backyard, a place where it has lost just one of its previous 19 Tests. The Proteas, remarkably, did it without three first-team players.

Even before a single ball in the series had been bowled, the visitors had been thrown a curveball in the form of injuries to Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi, and the Covid-enforced absence of Keegan Petersen. At least South Africa have been used to life without Nortje - who hasn’t played Test cricket since June - but both Ngidi and Petersen were integral to the win against India. 

While Ngidi - 15 wickets at an average of 15.00 - was statistically the best bowler in the entire series, Petersen was the Player of the Series for amassing 276 runs and playing multiple series-defining knocks. Even if the Proteas had gone down in the second Test in Christchurch, they could have pulled out excuses that would have been entirely acceptable. 

That the team not just overcame all this adversity, but managed to emerge victorious by taking the unconventional route - defying odds by ‘fronting up’ and batting first - is evidence enough that they are no longer pushovers.

Much like Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, South Africa, under Dean Elgar, seem to be heading in the right direction. The progress is evident.

What should really encourage the supporters is that the team is currently being driven forward by present and next-gen superstars who will form the side’s core in the next half-a-decade. 

While Rabada improved on his India showing and took his game a notch above, Marco Jansen, for the second series in a row, proved to be the x-factor that made the difference. On Day 5, it was Jansen’s triple strike that set-up the win for South Africa, with his wickets of Tom Blundell, Colin De Grandhomme and Kylie Jamieson bringing the Kiwis to their knees. 

If it was Jansen and Rabada with the ball, with the bat the New Zealand series marked the arrival of Kyle Verreynne. 

After dominating the four-day competition back home for years, Verreynne had a tough introduction to Test cricket, encountering extremely bowler friendly conditions against both West Indies and India. 

The first Test in Christchurch was no better, but he announced his arrival to the big stage sensationally in the second game, striking an unbeaten 136 under pressure to bat the Kiwis out of the contest. It is a testament to both Verreynne and the depth in South Africa that the abrupt retirement of Quinton de Kock has hardly been spoken about.

Amongst seniors there is room for improvement for Temba Bavuma and Rassie Van der Dussen, both of whom played crucial hands but did not have the impact they would have wished for, but the immediate future looks gloomy for Aiden Markram. 

Despite the dismal showing against India the management showed faith in Markram, but the right-hander had yet another disappointing outing, averaging 18.25 across 4 innings. With Sarel Erwee introducing himself with a ton, and with incumbent No. 3 Keegan Petersen set to return, it is hard to see Markram retaining his place in the first XI but for injuries. 

With the Bangladesh Test series still 30 days away, the management have a lot of time to ponder about selection calls. But that we are talking about South Africa becoming a better unit without Markram is a testament to how far the team has come in the past six months. 

It took the Proteas close to 20 months to register their fourth win in the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) cycle. In under a months’ time, they will have the opportunity to equal their tally from the first cycle with still a good chunk of the campaign left to be played.

A year ago, with Quinton de Kock at the helm, the thought of making a WTC final wouldn’t have struck South Africa in their wildest dreams. Now, under Elgar, should they continue to show the same tenacity they’ve been displaying, a dash to the final could very well be on the cards. 

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