South Africa spin to win

“I have an amazing core of players around me who understand me as a character and respect me as a player and a person.” – Dean Elgar

Telford Vice | St George’s Park

EVEN South Africa’s most myopic supporters would concede that Bangladesh did better this time. But not by much. At Kingsmead last Monday, they lost their last seven wickets in 55 minutes. At St George’s Park a week later, it took South Africa four minutes longer to claim those seven magnificently.

The visitors resumed on 27/3 and were rumbled for 80 in a second innings that lasted only 23.3 overs, making South Africa victors by 332 runs with an hour and a minute short of two days to spare to complete a 2-0 series triumph. Only three times in their 130 Tests have Bangladesh been bowled out for fewer runs, an ignominious list that includes their 53 in Durban.

Bangladesh have gone down in all eight Tests they have played in South Africa, five of them by an innings. Indeed, last week’s loss, by 220 runs, is their smallest margin of defeat in this country. But these two results will sting more than most because the visitors’ hopes would have been raised by their brilliant performance in the ODIs, where they stormed to two convincing wins to clinch the rubber. As it has turned out, all that that accomplished was to give them further to fall. Worse, not only did Bangladesh lose, they did so ignobly by trying to pin some of the blame for their dismal performance on the standard of the umpiring. 

But enough about them. South Africa’s untrammelled success in this series was difficult to imagine when, in the aftermath of the ODIs, they bid farewell to Kagiso Rabada, Marco Jansen, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortjé, Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram, who chose to play in the IPL instead.

Dean Elgar pleaded with them not to go, but now that South Africa have won without them, things seem to have changed. “I don’t know if those guys are going to be selected again; that’s out of my hands,” Elgar told a press conference on Monday. Mark Boucher concurred: “They did go to the IPL and vacate their spots.”

If CSA wanted to hatch some positive marketing about the episode, they could argue that they always knew there was a strong chance South Africa would be without their first-choice pace attack because of the IPL clash. Hence, the suits could have said, they put the matches on pitches where spin would dominate.

Not that many would have foreseen that Keshav Maharaj would loom quite so large over proceedings. Maharaj followed his 7/32 in the second innings at Kingsmead with 7/40 at St George’s Park, making him the only bowler in Test history to take seven wickets in the fourth innings of consecutive Tests. Invariably precise and bristling with intensity, he was close to unplayable in Gqeberha, where the pitch helped the ball turn and bounce more sharply than in Durban. So much so that Maharaj probably would also have been successful against significantly stronger opposition had they faced him in these conditions.    

Until Kingsmead, South Africa had never used only two bowlers to claim all 10 wickets in an innings. Now they’ve done it again. Simon Harmer was that other bowler, and a fine foil he made. Harmer bowls a brand of slow poison that deserves its own sub-category in player profiles: non-Asian attacking orthodox off-spin, which not long ago would have been an oxymoron.

Maharaj took 16 wickets at an average of 12.12 in the two matches, and Harmer 13 at 15.15. No other bowler claimed more than nine. Wiaan Mulder’s 12.00 was the only other average below 20, but he bowled just 17 overs in the series. Maharaj and Harmer bowled almost two-thirds of all South Africa’s overs in the rubber.

A disappointment for the home side was that they failed to convert any of the seven half-centuries they scored into centuries. Forty completed individual innings for South Africa have passed since Kyle Verreynne made 136 not out in Christchurch in February, his team’s most recent ton. Three of South Africa’s 50s against Bangladesh belonged to Elgar, the series’ leading runscorer, who said: “We need to notch up a few more hundreds. Our senior guys, when we get into good positions, we need to get to three figures. We know how much that means and how much pressure you put on the opposition that way. Our batting is the one negative area. We’re extremely aware of it and we’re working bloody hard to get those hundreds.”

Elgar has presided over seven victories in his nine Tests in charge since his appointment in March last year. South Africa were seventh in the World Test Championship standings when he took over. They are now second. A significant part of the credit for the turnaround belongs to their captain.

“Hopefully I’ve nailed down a style of play that we can all follow going forward,” Elgar said. “I like challenges, which is why I’m still playing Test cricket at nearly 35. I feel I’ve got a lot of good years left, maybe even my best years. I’m really enjoying it. I think if I was younger I may not have enjoyed it as much.

“If you’re playing good cricket and the results are going your way, it’s always going to ease the burden of captaincy. The last year has been extremely testing off the field, but I have an amazing core of players around me who understand me as a character and respect me as a player and a person. They understand the kind of cricket I want to play. Most of the senior guys have bought into it. We’re in a very special place, which makes me feel a lot happier about what I’m doing.”

Elgar’s next engagement as South Africa’s captain is in England in August. That’s also where his journey as a leader started in July 2017 when he stood in for Faf du Plessis, who was on paternity leave and missed the first Test of that series at Lord’s. England won by 211 runs inside four days.

“Lord’s got the better of me in that Test, because you are playing at Lord’s,” Elgar admitted. He’s a better captain now, England should know.

First published by Cricbuzz.

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South Africa spin to win