South Africa’s suddenly serious series

“I’m comfortable where I sit with the players who aren’t here.” – Dean Elgar on South Africa’s IPL absentees.

Telford Vice | Cape Town

DEAN Elgar joked in December that South Africa’s players didn’t know who their administrators were, a comment on cricket’s chronic instability in the country. Now he might have to admit to something similar about the attack he will take into the Test series against Bangladesh.

The defection to the IPL of Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortjé, Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen takes 82 Test caps out of the mix. It also removes some of the game’s finest quicks from the equation. For instance, no-one has taken more Test wickets this year than the 23 claimed by Rabada, Jansen and Pat Cummins. Add the omission of Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram, who are also IPL-bound, and the excised experience grows to 128 caps.

Suddenly, Duanne Olivier and Lutho Sipamla are South Africa’s senior fast bowlers. Also in the squad are Lizaad Williams, Glenton Stuurman and Daryn Dupavillon, as well as Ryan Rickelton and Khaya Zondo. Olivier, Sipamla and Stuurman have played 17 Tests between them. Dupavillon, Williams, Rickelton and Zondo are uncapped.

Elgar is in the same sorry situation as the head chef at a top class restaurant who arrives in the kitchen to discover their best knives have been stolen and their sous and pastry chefs have eloped. Except that he has known for weeks that this might happen, and had his fears confirmed before the squad was announced on March 17.

“A lot of events have happened since my last interview around this very topic,” Elgar told a press conference on Monday, with reference to the impassioned plea he made on March 4 for his players to choose country over cash. “I’m comfortable where I sit with the players who aren’t here. I’ve had some really good, in detail chats with those players just to find out where they are mentally. I’m very comfortable with the answers that they’ve given me.

“Be that as it may, they’re not here with us and we have to make do with our next best that we have in the country, who I’m still very confident in. Yes, we’ve lost a few Test caps along the way not having the IPL players with us, but it’s a great opportunity for those guys to stand up and put those other players under pressure. I’m confident they can do that.”

Elgar’s tone was significantly more subdued compared to the passion he showed almost four weeks ago, when he said “we’ll see where [the players’] loyalty lies” and implored them not to “forget that Test and one-day cricket got them into the IPL, not the other way around”.

Pholetsi Moseki, CSA’s acting chief executive, expressed surprise at the time that Elgar had told the press the players had been saddled with the choice of going to the IPL or staying on for the Test series. Had Elgar been told to rein himself in?

“I’m pretty confined with regards to what I can and can’t say,” Elgar said on Monday. “The players were put in a bit of a situation with regards to making themselves available. I’m sure they wouldn’t have made a rash decision if it didn’t mean a hell of a lot to them. I’ve had conversations with the players and I know where they stand with regards to the Test side and playing Test cricket. I think they were put in a situation that was unavoidable, bearing in mind that quite a few of the guys have never had IPL experience before. I don’t think they wanted to hurt their opportunity going forward in the competition.”

It was a strange comment considering, of the six absentees, only Van der Dussen has not been to the IPL before; albeit Markram has played only six games in the tournament and Jansen just two. But there is something to be said for players’ not creating doubt over their availability in the minds of IPL franchise owners. The amount of money they could earn in a single edition of cricket’s moneyed monster could change their lives in a way that dutifully turning out for the national team, year in and year out, cannot match.

That alone decides the debate about the choice they made, but damaging misinformation about how they came to be lumped with that decision has muddied the discussion at public level. It is true that, with regard to being given permission to feature in the IPL rather than for South Africa if dates clash, the IPL is the only franchise tournament specified in the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between CSA and the South African Cricketers’ Association. It is not true that the MOU guarantees players clearance to go to the IPL ahead of being picked for South Africa. CSA retain the right to refuse to issue any player an NOC, or no objection certificate, for any tournament including the IPL. But CSA can hardly afford to do so in the case of cricket’s biggest payday. That could prompt retirements from the international game — the savvy thing to do, financially speaking. So compromises are made.

On the plus side for Elgar, South Africa will welcome back Keegan Petersen, the leading runscorer in the home series against India in December and January who missed the tour to New Zealand in January and February after contracting Covid. Petersen’s grit will be important in a team who consider recovering some of the prestige lost in the home side’s shock loss to the Bangladeshis in the one-day series as part of their mission. That’s the case even though Temba Bavuma, Kyle Verreynne and Keshav Maharaj are the only members of the ODI squad who will be in the Test dressing room.

“I think what happened in the ODI series has hurt quite a lot of players,” Elgar said. “I wasn’t involved but I’m pretty hurt about the result. I’d like to think that’s fuelled us. Our hunger is going to be right up there.”

But Elgar recognised that the visitors, who lost all 19 of the completed matches they played against South Africa in South Africa before this tour, were a significantly improved team: “We know this Bangladesh side is not the one of old. They’re a new team with a westernised coaching staff who have changed their mindset with regards to how to play cricket in South Africa.” Russell Domingo, South Africa’s coach from August 2013 to August 2017, heads a Bangladesh coaching cohort that includes compatriot Allan Donald and Australians Jamie Siddons and Shane McDermott. 

Given the slant of the one-day series, in which the home side conceded they were outplayed in all departments despite the fact that the matches were staged in Centurion and at the Wanderers — venues where conditions are overtly South African, and so distinctly un-Asian — did Elgar look forward to the Tests unspooling more slowly at Kingsmead and St George’s Park?

He seemed irked by the suggestion: “Not really. I still think our best Test cricket is played on the Highveld. I’ve got no say over scheduling and venues. Hopefully in the future that can change, but I’d still be extremely happy to play against these guys on the Highveld. I don’t think we’ve got any fear about that. We play our best brand of cricket in that area.

“But even though we’re playing in conditions that are lower and slower, we can adapt. I’ll play them anywhere. I’ve played against mighty cricket nations on really tough surfaces on the Highveld, and we’ve had a lot of success out of that. I’m not too fazed about us playing on slower or quicker wickets. I just think we need to nail down our basics again. That doesn’t change from venue to venue.”

It doesn’t, but South Africa’s failure to launch at two of their fortresses and Bangladesh’s stellar performance must prompt a rethink. The visitors’ Test squad includes seven of their ODI heroes, notably Tamim Iqbal, Taskin Ahmed and Mehidy Hasan. And it should sharpen the home side’s focus that the series will be played at the same grounds where Sri Lanka won 2-0 in February 2019 — the only Test series victory by an Asian side in South Africa.

Will Kingsmead, where the rubber starts on Thursday, again prove itself as reasonable a facsimile of a subcontinental pitch as can be found on the sharp tip of Africa? “We want more grass on the pitch, and I think the preparation has been pretty good until now,” Elgar said. “I’m not too familiar with what they’ve done, but it seems like grass has grown a little bit here at Kingsmead. I think it helps if you put water on the pitch because that tends to make grass grow.”

Yes, that was another of Elgar’s jokes. No, he wasn’t laughing. There is too much at stake for that. 

First published by Cricbuzz.

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South Africa’s suddenly serious series