Updated: January 6, 2022 1:16:51 pm
Dean Elgar was hit flush on the helmet grille by Jasprit Bumrah at Wanderers four years ago, prompting play to be called off early on the third day. Play eventually resumed on the fourth morning, after plenty of overnight intrigue over whether the pitch was dangerous enough for the match to be called off. The first ball from Bumrah flew over Elgar and the wicketkeeper, and the second delivery smacked into Elgar’s gloves.
Hardly anyone would have questioned the South Africa opener had he been dismissed swinging his bat in frustration, after taking this much battering in those risky conditions. But Elgar, as he has throughout his career, showed that he is made of some rare alloy that just does not buckle, regardless of how much pressure is applied. He remained unconquered on 86 off 240 balls, having faced more than 200 of those after copping the terrible blow on the third evening.
India went on to wrap up a memorable win, and Elgar’s effort would go down as another fighting knock that was ultimately in vain. The match is remembered for how India stunned South Africa in completely alien conditions for an Asian team.
Four years later, Elgar, now South Africa captain, has fought through multiple blows again to survive another day against the same opponents at the same ground, and now has the opportunity to make it all about himself. Not about the opposition, not about some flashier batter from his own team.
South Africa stand 122 runs away from levelling the three-match Test series against India 1-1, and they have as many as eight wickets available in their pursuit of the target of 240. Crucially, their captain is still in the middle, unconquered on 46 off 121 in a total of 118/2.
Elgar has hit only two fours in those 121 deliveries. Aiden Markram hit six fours, but he is gone for 31. Keegan Petersen hit four fours, but he is gone too, for 28. Elgar clearly does not have their talent, they do not seem to have his grit. Under Elgar’s watch, South Africa are yet to score a four for a staggering 106 balls now.
This is a pitch where even Cheteshwar Pujara said he made a conscious effort to play some shots as soon as he came in; Pujara hooked and cut and drove without restraining himself, and went at a strike-rate of 60-plus for his half-century. “You never know when you will get an unplayable ball,” said Pujara.
There are cracks, there are dents, there is some live grass, there are some barren patches, so there is plenty of seam movement and variable bounce. The ball can come for your knees or your throat from about the same length. But Elgar is prepared to be peppered almost everywhere. As stumps approached and the floodlights came on, he withstood one punch after another in the gloom, refusing to play a single aggressive shot as riposte.
The most fearsome of the strikes was from Bumrah, and like in January 2018, he pinged Elgar on the grille again. It was one of those surprise Bumrah bouncers, so difficult to judge and nearly impossible to avoid. Surely Elgar must have felt immense pain; his face remained flushed thereafter.
All he did after the impact, though, was to go down sideways on one knee and feel his head. Neither did his eyes betray pain nor did his expression. If anything, they suggested his determination had sharpened. It is almost like he looks forward to getting hit in the line of duty, and uses that for further motivation when it happens. “He is a competitor at heart. That is what he loves about the game, the competitive nature of Test cricket and that brings the best out of him and allows his character to shine through,” Justin Sammons, the South Africa batting consultant, said after the day’s play.
And this Indian Test bowling attack is nothing if not competitive. After Bumrah, Shardul Thakur crashed one into Elgar’s gloves. In the next over, Elgar took his eyes off a lifter from Mohammed Shami and wore it on the right shoulder.
While taking treatment from the physio, he smiled broadly while chatting with the umpires. Just how can you pull that off, Dean?
He’s made ‘looking ugly’ a style statement. His head falls over often and reaches closer to the line of deliveries outside off than his bat does. Which is as well, for otherwise he might nick them.
‘Play at one man,’ the half-fit Mohammed Siraj had sledged him on the second day while angling them gently across the left-hander. All Elgar did was smile back, and kept leaving them.
After all the hammering he’d taken, you thought he’d play at one at least. And he actually seemed to, off the penultimate ball of the third day from Shami, but pulled his bat away at the last instant. Ugly? Ungainly? Well, he is still out there, and that is what matters going into the fourth, and most certainly final, day of this Test. “It is not going to be easy. Their attack has been relentless throughout the series. We know how the pitch has played, but we believe we can chase this down,” said Sammons. “Hopefully the heavy roller does its part as it has done previously when it has been used.”
The heavy roller has settled the demons in the surface for about an hour or so before they wake up again. When they do, South Africa will hope their foremost warrior will still be around to continue his battle against them. Temba Bavuma leads a competent support cast that is yet to play its role, but if this match is anyone’s to fight for, and fight long enough to win, it is Dean Elgar’s.
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