Updated: January 8, 2022 3:02:50 pm
There’s this old monastic school of batting where you major in ‘substance’ with ‘style’ being optional. Dean Elgar and Cheteshwar Pujara are alumni of that archaic institute that has been struggling to survive. Cricket’s Unicorns, the T20 franchise, don’t turn up here for campus hiring.
They produce Test cricketers, the breed that works for long hours but settles for smaller pay cheques. On most days, they are seen as the misfits in the modern game, those boring stone-wallers blocking the way of the younger stroke players. But then there are games like the one at Wanderers, where the world stands up to applaud the unsung and acknowledge that strike rate was an inadequate matrix to quantify Test match batting.
Elgar, and before that Pujara, showed that cricket still had space for those with patience to play time, courage to take body blows and conviction to stick to their much-maligned, often ugly batting approach. On their turf, in those sacred flannels, they have it in them to make the Markrams and Pants of the world – batsmen who make IPL owners with paddles in their hands drool – look inferior.
A couple of years back, Elgar, in an interview to Sriram Veera, had spoken about his Pujara connection. “I think myself and Pooji (Cheteshwar Pujara) are potentially in the same boat. We are very similar players. He also, I reckon, can make batting look ugly at times but he is really effective and may be back home he isn’t really cherished as much as the others. Because he is not seen as someone who hits every ball for four,” he said.
That was 2018. Pujara hadn’t yet been picked at the IPL auction to the thundering claps from a room full of franchise-owners, all gracefully making way for Chennai Super Kings to be the big-hearted supporter of Tests and Test cricketers. This was also Elgar’s time under the sun. He had played a couple of archetypal Elgar knocks to deny India a historic Test series win. He had the attention of the cricket world and he couldn’t have missed a chance to smirk at IPL and point to the rather lukewarm attention he and other one-format players got from fans. “I have found a way of dealing with the reactions, and creating a vibe around myself. Because I don’t play in the IPL. IPL players get a lot more credit and so be it. They deserve it. So I am not a big person to really let go and enjoy people kissing my arse for doing something that I am supposed to do!”
These are tough cricketers with a high threshold of pain, both mentally and physically. Since their wonder years, from them a match day would mean a dawn to dusk schedule. A good knock was all about getting their eye in, tiring the bowlers and waiting for the loose balls. Runs were rarely gifted, they needed to be earned.
Unlike those T20 high rollers, fame didn’t come cheap for them. A 15-ball 45 or two decisive hits to tier 3 of the stands could see spin doctors give them legendary status, a million insta followers, Rs 6 crore price tag and compel influential backers to do their bidding for India colours.
The old school cricketers weren’t lucky to play on flat tracks in the centre of lightning quick outfields with few in catching position. Elgar and Pujara also had to fight the elements, deal with the cracks that widen on day 4 and the wicked deliveries that jump at you like an angry reptile. Despite the high degree of difficulty, they were masters of the format of fine margins where the bowlers, like when bowling with the white ball, aren’t unfanged.
In Tests, getting your body dented by missiles fired from 22 yards isn’t a short-coming, but a tactic. Not for a moment think Elgar didn’t have the technique to face the short ball or that getting hit on the helmet was an indicator of his slow reflexes. Offering your bat to defend a ball on a dangerously weary pitch was foolishness. The batsmen who, by choice, let the red leather leave a mark on the flesh get the respect of a Test match dressing room.
Early last year during the epic Gabba win, Pujara shared a trade secret after his 211 balls 56 where Starc, Cummins and Hazelwood between them hit him on his helmet, thigh, fingers, chest, shoulder, back of head and bicep. “There was this crack on the pitch around the short-of-length spot from where the ball would just take off. In case I took my hand up to defend it, there was a risk that I would glove the ball. Considering the match situation and how we couldn’t afford to lose wickets, I decided to let the ball hit my body,” he had said.
This wasn’t a game plan for the weak-hearted and Elgar is a certified Braveheart. Writing for The Indian Express, his father Richards shared a conversation with his son on the morning of Day 4. “He told me, ‘Dad, if they want to get me out, they would have to break something in my body to drag me out of there. They are not going to get me by hitting me on the body. No way in hell’,” he told Sriram.
Elgar’s more-precious-than-a-hundred 96* was an innings with gravitas. There he was at Wanderers being true to the school of batting he proudly represents. It was an innings of substance that moved the practitioners and admirers of that slowly fading good old Test-match style batting, regardless of their known leanings.
You could sense the rising pitch in the voices of Sunil Gavaskar and Hashim Amla in the commentary box. Elgar even made twitter’s Tom & Jerry – Michael Vaughan and Wasim Jaffer – agree for once. Others doffing their caps at the South African skipper were BJP MP, former India opener Gautam Gambhir and senior Congress leader, former Finance Minister PC Chidambaram.
Who doesn’t like seeing a gritty eternal-trier, the caretaker of cricket’s golden past, get his due?
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National Sports Editor