“YO‘ve got absolutely no interest in the style that they’ve played.” Dean Elgar, South Africa’s bullish Test captain, will not be drawn on the hype surrounding England’s swashbuckling batting this summer. “I think it can go one of two ways for them and it can go south very quickly. [Talking about it] is a waste of energy. Their own coach doesn’t even like the slogan they’ve come up with. I’d like to see them do it against our seamers.”
The Proteas captain and long-serving opener – speaking before his team’s warm-up match against the England Lions ended in a shocking innings defeat – has been happy to shoulder arms to the Bazball chatter that has dominated the discourse ever since Ben Stokes teamed up with Brendon McCullum.
He is now surely taking the threat England’s primary batters pose more seriously, after a group of reserves amassed 672 at 5.74 runs an over, albeit against a South Africa XI lacking the pace trio Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Lungisani Ngidi, plus the world- class spin of Simon Harmer.
As the first of three Tests starts at Lord’s on Wednesday, he will have to find a way of dousing the promised pyrotechnics. Not that he will hide from the challenge.
Elgar is a cricketer from a previous age. A red-ball specialist who has built a 10-year career with little more than a nudge off his hips and an inelegant drive, he shuns celebrity and avoids social media. “I’ve got better things to do than tweet,” he says.
Raised by a disciplinary father in the mining town of Welkom in the heart of the country, he favors frugality over flamboyance, both with his words and his approach to his craft.
“People can say what they want, trust me, I don’t really give a shit,” he says when asked how he felt about the words “nuggety” and “combative”, adjectives that have followed him ever since he made a pair on debut, against Australia in Perth in 2012. “It never bothered me. I don’t have my head in my ass and I don’t read anything people say or write about me. Maybe that’s made me the character I am today.”
Some of Elgar’s best Test runs – 4,864 at just under 40 – have been scored on difficult pitches in challenging circumstances. His unbeaten 96 against India in the fourth innings at the Wanderers in January was one of the great knocks by a South Africa captain. That five-hour marathon included numerous blows from Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, and helped square the three-match series. A week later his team won again, securing a 2-1 triumph despite suffering a crushing defeat in the first Test.
But captaining an international cricket team often requires a soft touch. Factor in the extra political and social baggage that comes with the job in South Africa and people skills become just as important as the ability to set a field or rejig a bowling attack.
“That was definitely a weakness of mine at first,” Elgar says, reflecting on his appointment in June last year after the short-lived experiment with the wicketkeeper-batter Quinton de Kock at the helm. “I’m man enough to say that it was a weakness and that I needed to better myself.
“If you want to have the position I hold, you have to adapt and develop that side, otherwise you’ll lose some teammates along the way. It’s about relationships and keeping those as a priority. I’m not the finished article. There is a lot of work I have to do.”
Elgar took the wheel of a teetering ship. Cricket South Africa was still recovering from its damaged reputation after several years of mismanagement and the Covid‑19 pandemic had squeezed the organisation’s income, with lucrative series against England and Australia abandoned. Perennial racial tensions were coming to a head and would burst at the social justice and nation-building (SJN) hearings that revealed a deep cultural rot at all levels within the sport. Was Elgar really the right man for these troubled times?
“I had to deal with a lot of off-field things and I didn’t expect to be thrown in the lion’s den,” he says with an involuntary laugh. “The team environment was being impacted by the negative press. The players didn’t deserve that and it was starting to have an impact on some of the guys.
“We became an easy target for journalists who wrote a lot of crappy articles. It made us tighter. We used that negativity but never allowed it to infiltrate the camp.
“You could say the team needed someone who wasn’t willing to take second best. Who wasn’t willing to take any bullshit. I’ve always been an honest person. That is how you get the best out of players. Item [the SJN hearings] was the best thing that could have happened. Just purely knowing more about what Black people go through and what the different cultures experience in this country. And that includes the Afrikaans guys in the team, the Colored [mixed-race] guys, the Indian [south-Asian] guys. All those communities experience South Africa in a different way and that whole process has been incorporated well.”
Elgar says there were moments when he considered quitting. “I think we all felt that but as players we weren’t in a position to say anything. We had to keep quiet and focus on what we could control.”
A series win in the Caribbean preceded the victory over India. They then became the second side in five years to avoid a series defeat in New Zealand, with a 1-1 draw, before a clean sweep of Bangladesh at home. With little fanfare, the Proteas have ascended to the top of the ICC World Test Championship table.
“What we’ve done on the field has been neglected,” Elgar says, though this will be his toughest challenge yet. The team’s batting looks thin but no previous South Africa captain has had such a versatile attack to work with. Rabada, Nortje and Ngidi are a trio of threatening quicks ably supported by the left-arm seamer Marco Jansen, who is 2m tall, as well as two fine spinners in Keshav Maharaj and Harmer.
Whether he is buying the hype or not, Bazball is coming. He has promised to confront it with the same grit and gumption that now defines him.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism