You look at any team sport, every side has its fair share of superstars. These are the types of players who draw huge crowds and are talked about in almost every team meeting in the opposition's dressing room. They are the ones who hog most of the limelight and grab all the headlines, be it on the field or off it. They are on the pre-series teasers, TV advertisements, billboards, promotional events... We are talking about players like Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kagiso Rabada and many more. They are what you call the alphas!
But often, there are some players who don't always receive the attention they deserve. These cricketers put in the same amount of hard work and do what benefits the team but often do not receive the praise they deserve. They are the ones who do things that can't always be reflected via stats - play out the tough overs, break big partnerships and take blows for the team. What these players do might not be eye-pleasing but they somehow get the job done. However, these are the players who are loved and respected by all. They are what you call the unsung heroes, and Dean Elgar is one of them!
While left-handers are generally known for their elegance, Elgar's batting is not pleasing to the eye but the South African opener makes up for it with his remarkable grittiness and willingness to occupy the crease for long durations. No matter what the situation is or how the surface is behaving, Elgar has never thrown in the towel. Elgar, by all means, is a warrior and a team player. The left-handed opener is basically the shieldman of the South African team. He neither has the class of Hashim Amla nor the flair of AB de Villiers but the 32-year-old somehow or the other finds a way to score runs.
Elgar led South Africa in the 2006 Under-19 World Cup but had to wait over six years to make his international debut, in an ODI against England in August 2012. He simply didn't fit into the one-day fold because of his low batting strike rate. Then came the Test debut against Australia in Perth and even that didn't go his way as Elgar bagged a pair batting at No. 6. The left-hander scored his first Test ton in his third Test and that helped him cement his place in the Test set-up. He was promoted up the order after former skipper Graeme Smith announced his retirement in 2014 and Elgar crafted a gritty 103 against Sri Lanka in Galle in only his second Test as an opener.
A solid defence, a habit of playing late, super off-stump awareness, an airtight batting technique, Elgar had all the ingredients to become a successful opener and with a middle-order comprising of Amla, Faf du Plessis, de Villiers and Quinton de Kock, Elgar established himself as someone who would get those 'ugly runs'. He soon became one of the mainstays of the South African batting line-up and enhanced his reputation even further during the tour of India in 2015 where he displayed tremendous courage on deteriorating surfaces.
The likes of Amla and de Villiers retired from the game and that has put extra burden on Elgar. The year 2017 was extraordinary for Elgar as he scored more first-class runs than any other batsman on this planet. He even managed five centuries in 12 Tests and amassed 1128 runs at an average of 53.71. He had an outstanding home series against Sri Lanka and then even did well in New Zealand and England. However, Elgar has struggled to score runs on a consistent basis since the start of 2018. He did carry his bat twice in 2018 and became the only batsman apart from Desmond Haynes to have performed the feat thrice in Test cricket, but there was a drastic fall in his average and number of big scores.
Those two knocks - 86* v India in Johannesburg and 141* v Australia in Cape Town - were outstanding but Elgar hasn't been as consistent as South Africa would have liked him to be. The left-hander has managed only two centuries in 42 innings since the start of 2018 and that too had a 560-day gap between them. The year 2019 was even worse as he only scored 351 runs in 16 innings at an average of 25.07. But out of those 351 runs, 160 came in just one innings against India in Visakhapatnam. If we take out that knock, Elgar operated at an average of just 14.69. That 160 was the only 50-plus score he managed in 2019.
The last few years haven't been great for Test openers around the globe. Yes, there have been people like Tom Latham, Mayank Agarwal, David Warner and Dimuth Karunaratne who have done well in this time period but most of the others have been fairly inconsistent. Since 2018, Elgar has the fourth-worst batting average amongst openers who have played a minimum of 10 innings.
There's not much difference in Elgar's batting average in away Tests but there has been a huge drop in his performances at home since 2018. Pre-2018, Elgar had a batting average of 55.22 in South Africa which has now come down to a mediocre 32.86 in these last two years. The likes of Dominic Sibley, Rory Burns, Aiden Markram, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner have better batting averages than Elgar in South Africa since 2018. Even overall, Elgar has the second-worst batting average in home Tests amongst openers with a minimum of 500 runs in this time frame.
Apart from de Kock, every other South African batsman has struggled to get going in recent times. The likes of Rassie van der Dussen, du Plessis and Temba Bavuma have all failed to perform on a consistent basis and that has been the biggest reason why South Africa haven't been doing well.
So, what's going wrong with Elgar?
Elgar has always been solid against both fast bowlers and spinners. He still averages just over 40 against pacers but the left-hander has been struggling a lot against spinners since the start of 2018. He had an average of 46.6 against spinners since the end of 2017, which has now dropped to just 22.13 in these last two years. Even in his own backyard where surfaces are more conducive for fast bowlers, Elgar has an average of only 18.56 against spinners since the start of 2018. The balls per dismissal of 94 have now come down to 56.8 in this time period. He has been found wanting against the likes of Nathan Lyon, Dilruwan Perera, Dominic Bess and R Ashwin in recent times.
Another area of concern, Elgar has also been getting out quite a few times playing off-drives and pushes through the off sides in these last two years. Prior to 2018, he had an average of 146 while playing off-drives, which has now come down to just 9. Then comes those gentle pushes through the off side. Elgar had an average of 69 while playing such shots but since 2018, it has dropped down to 25.8. Plus, he has always had trouble against short deliveries but since 2018, Elgar's record has gotten worse. From averaging 22.5 on such deliveries, he now averages just 9.3.
The 32-year-old hasn't been at his best of late but it will be foolish to look beyond Elgar, and anyway, South Africa don't have many options in their arsenal. Ever since Smith announced his retirement, Elgar has had 10 opening partners but none of them have managed to cement their place. The likes of de Villiers and Amla allowed Elgar to be slightly low-profile but now the spotlight is on him and he can no longer fly under the radar.
Elgar recently expressed his interest in becoming South Africa's next Test skipper, saying leadership comes naturally to him and it actually won't be a bad idea to give him the captaincy. Elgar had a decent home series against England at the start of this year and captaincy will give him extra motivation to become more responsible.
Hopefully, Elgar can turn things around because the cricketing world needs fighters like him. But more importantly, South Africa needs him more than ever.