The circumstances of Elgar’s pomp

“The competition within our squad is huge. It’s healthy competition, not malicious competition.” – Dean Elgar

Telford Vice / Manchester

DEAN Elgar bounced up from his seat after a lunchtime press conference at Old Trafford on Wednesday. “Let’s go train before it rains,” he said with urgency. Whatever nuts and bolts were left to tighten before the start of the second Test, he was in a hurry to get the spanners out.

Elgar left in a blaze of primrose yellow trainers, but not the orange socks he wore at Lord’s last week — and which he deployed, he said, “only at practices”. As if to do so in a match would offend the gods.

Colourful training gear aside, South Africa’s captain is a famously old-fashioned cricketer. It followed that his team played the same kind of old-fashioned cricket at Lord’s as they have in all 10 of their Tests since he was appointed in March last year. They have won eight of them, three by an innings — including the three-day hiding they dealt England last week.

“What happened in the first Test was something amazing for us,” Elgar said. “We played really solid, sound cricket, as we’ve been doing for the last year.” And which, no doubt, he wants his side to do in the match that starts at Old Trafford on Thursday. “It’s difficult to read the future. I wish I could. I really hope the second Test goes the same way, but I know it’s going to be a lot tougher, knowing that England were hurt. They’re coming back with a vengeance.”

The home side will have to, because anything less is unlikely to be good enough to stop a team who rose above even their own expectations in the first Test. To bowl their opponents out twice with 12 runs of their own to spare despite a top score of Sarel Erwee’s 73 and nary another half-century has emboldened the South Africans enough for Elgar to talk about loyalty.

“We have extra resources, but as long as we’re getting the results, backing is extremely important for those guys,” he said of his middle order. “We have given them a decent run and I’m sure they know they’re under pressure to perform. Consistency is key in Test cricket, and even consistency in selection.”

As for his bowlers, who dismissed England for 165 and 149: “I reckon they can get much better. They’re still pretty fresh. They had a brilliant game. The pitch assisted them at Lord’s; we’ve got to take that into account. But you’ve got to put the ball into the right area and they did that. Our bowlers are leading our pack. They’re extremely hungry for success. The competition among them is brilliant, and the way they go about things is some of the most professional behaviour I’ve seen from fast bowlers. You don’t have to speak to them too much. They know what they have to do. They’ve got to bring the heat and the intensity again.

“The wicket might not suit blasting out a batting line-up so we might need to adapt to the conditions in front of us, which is a massive strength of ours.”

Part of Elgar’s plan for keeping his players on their toes is not telling them which member of the 12 won’t be on the scorecard. “We decide on the XI on the day. Everyone’s down to play, and on the day you’ll be told if you are or not. It creates the sense that no-one can take their foot off the gas if everyone’s available to play.”

He was no closer to deciding on his XI less than 24 hours before the start of the match than he was when the first Test ended on Friday: “[On Wednesday] we couldn’t even have a proper look at the pitch because of the weather that cut our practice short. The pitch was covered most of the day. I haven’t had a look at it yet. I had to have lunch and do the press.” But the choice wasn’t troubling him: “We’ve got the right resources in the changeroom. Whether we play four seamers or two spinners, it’s exciting. We’ve never had the luxury of having two world-class spinners in our armoury. And we’ve got our fast bowlers who set the tone.”

Those fast bowlers are Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Anrich Nortjé. The spinners are Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer. Elgar will likely choose between playing Ngidi or Harmer, but Ngidi looks the favourite.

So England picking Ollie Robinson because of expected extra bounce in the pitch tickled Elgar: “Love the mind games. Really enjoy it. If there’s going to be extra pace and bounce I’m sure our fast bowlers are going to get that out of this pitch.”

Elgar looked and sounded like a captain who couldn’t wait to get on with the job, and why not after a result as emphatic as his team have delivered — which contrasted sharply with his match in charge. In July 2017 he stood in for Faf du Plessis, who was away on paternity leave, in another first Test in England, also at Lord’s. South Africa lost by 211 runs in four days on their way to a 1-2 series defeat. Elgar, Maharaj and Rabada are the only survivors of that side. 

“We’ve got a lot of young guys who haven’t had any failures, so they don’t come with any baggage,” Elgar said. “There’s a lot of hunger and the competition within our squad is huge. It’s the strongest I’ve seen, and it’s healthy competition — not malicious competition. The red flag is being in too much of a comfortable position, and it’s up to me and the coach to align us after every good spell and pull the guys into line irrespective of how long they’ve been here. I see everyone as an equal.”

The differences with the mood in the England camp couldn’t be more pronounced. Ben Stokes’ team have spent the past few days trying to explain away what happened at Lord’s as an aberration, and on talking about the documentary on their captain’s career and his struggles with mental challengers. Would Elgar and his players watch the film, which will be available for streaming on Friday? 

“If he wants he can send me a link and I’ll watch it after the Test. It’s inspiring in English cricket and I’m sure it’s also going to touch people’s lives outside of English cricket. I’m sure there’s a message throughout. Maybe in the next few weeks we’ll be able to sit down and watch it.”

For now, though, he didn’t have to say, he has other things to do. Like win a Test series. 

First published by Cricbuzz.

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The circumstances of Elgar’s pomp