When Graeme Smith bid adieu to the game, South Africa wouldn’t have hoped to find anyone matching his aura and presence at the crease. Yet, they found someone, who not only resembles Graeme Smith with his presence but also with his ugly technique, grit and determination. We are talking about that battered South African opener, who batted till the plaster in his hand seeped blood, yet found himself on the losing side. Dean Elgar.
When Graeme Smith walked out to bat at Sydney at no.11 with a broken arm, the World applauded and cheered. Here was a brave skipper, physically broken walking out to face a terrifying pace attack on their home turf in front of a domineering crowd. It couldn’t get worse. Yet Smith walked out, battled and lost. But there was dignity in that loss. He was a wounded soldier ready to give up his last blood for the team’s cause.
It is not often in cricket that firefighters and the ugly ducklings make a name. Cricket is a game for the likes of Rohit Sharma, Steven Smith and AB de Villiers, the flamboyant, elegant, easy to the eye stroke makers who delight crowds with their effortless hits over the fence. When has a Graeme Smith, a Michael Atherton, a Roston Chase or a Dean Elgar found a huge fan following? They aren’t your everyday heroes in cricket. They fight fire with fire, stay bruised, battered and wounded at the crease for their team yet end up with a fake smile and broken hearts after the match at press conferences.
Elgar was similar. He had survived 228 balls that included several hits on his hip, thighs, chest and both hands, but had seen his side slip off to a defeat at The Oval. That he made his eighth Test hundred, a valiant knock of 136 barely mattered when he spoke to the press after the game.
“I prefer not getting hit,” he smiled, “but so be it, it’s part of the game, you have to take the blows.”
Those were brave words from the South African opener. He had waged a lone war with none of his colleagues fighting it out with him with all odds stacked against them. They had an immaculate Anderson, a seaming Broad, an eager debutant, a fiery all-rounder and a wily off-spinner to counter in one whole day with six wickets remaining. Not even the blockathon King, Faf du Plessis, could pull off something from here. He seemed to realise as much when he raised arms to an incoming delivery to be dismissed leg before wicket.
But Elgar wasn’t prepared to give up.
He fought out the England pacers and smothered Moeen Ali to notch up a fine hundred on a difficult fifth day wicket. There was something special around this one. This was the first time Elgar had compiled a fourth innings ton. Five of his eight hundreds had come in the first innings of Test matches, something which sets him apart from Graeme Smith. The former Proteas skipper once held the record for most hundreds in the fourth innings of Tests with four of them before Younis Khan took over later.
If Elgar wanted to correct his record in the final innings, The Oval would have been a nice start and that is exactly what it is proving to be. His amazing temperament, resilience and determination were commendable. The manner in which he was prepared to stave off a pack of wolves hunting on their home turf with the clouds and the crowds cheering them on deserves accolades. His attitude deserves even more.
When speaking of Ben Stokes’ running in hard and bowling real fast, Elgar revealed, “It’s brilliant, that’s why you play the game. As a kid you witness that on TV and you hear the crowd singing the person’s name etc, and you don’t get a better occasion than (Monday). You’ve have to try and put it on your side as well, get motivated, that you almost have to be a little more stubborn, tighter in your gameplan, so you can use it in your own game. It’s a great occasion facing a guy like that. He’s a big match player and he’d going to come hard, it’s a great battle playing against him.”
That kind of attitude augers well for South Africa. They have sorely missed Smith but with Elgar doing the dirty work now, they may no longer sit and ponder about the former enigmatic skipper. Finally, they can move on and with pleasure. That said, Elgar needs a solid partner and the onus is on the selectors to find him one. Five partners have been tried in the past 22 Tests and no one has come out convincing.
Since Graeme Smith’s retirement, South Africa have tried seven opening combinations with only three of them crossing 10 Tests together. However, none of the seven, except a temporary experiment with de Kock opening alongside Stephen Cook, average over 40, a worrying trend considering that Elgar has been quite stable at one end.
A sixth partner for the southpaw could be tried out at Old Trafford with Aiden Markram a possible option ahead of Heino Kuhn. An under-19 World Cup winning captain, Markram has made rapid strides in domestic cricket to earn a place in the Test squad and a debut in the fourth Test cannot be ruled out. If he does debut, Elgar would hope that this one stays. After all, he has toiled and staved off several attacks from the top, single-handedly for the last three years. A partner in firefighting would be most welcome.
Not that he is complaining, though. As he said after the match,
“You’ve got to take the positive out of it. I guess only an opening batsman could see it that way.”