“I am a small guy in stature but a big guy when it comes to standing up and being the representer”
There are two ways to lead a team, according to South Africa’s new Test captain Dean Elgar: “You can take it to your head or you can take it to your heart.”
And he has decided on the latter. “I like to think I have taken it to my heart,” he said. “I am not a ‘me’ guy; I am a ‘we’ guy. For me, it’s about the team.”
The two-match away-from-home Test series against West Indies was Elgar’s first series as captain and he said he already feels like he is natural fit.
“It’s something I’ve always thought I have been born with. I have always been a leader, at school, club cricket through franchise cricket. I always like to think I’ve led from the front,” he said. “I am a small guy in stature but a big guy when it comes to standing up and being the representer. It’s a massive honour. I don’t shy away from that responsibility, and I don’t shy away from saying that.”
Elgar’s straight-talk has been one of the standout features of his time in charge so far, perhaps because it sits in such stark contrast to what came in the series before him. Quinton de Kock’s elevation to the Test captaincy was a failed experiment, detrimental to both de Kock and the direction the South African team were going in. Even Faf du Plessis, who led with aplomb under Russell Domingo and Ottis Gibson, had a tough final series as captain, steeped in racial controversy after his “we don’t see colour” comment and questions over his own form. Elgar has faced both, but has so far found ways to deal with them.
One of the first questions Elgar was asked as the team geared up to take on West Indies was whether South Africa would join their hosts in taking a knee to show solidarity with the anti-racist cause, a potentially prickly subject because South Africa had not done so as a national team before. Others who have been asked the same over the last year have been defensive and, on one occasion, even stopped from engaging from the topic, but Elgar welcomed it.
He thanked the reporter who made the inquiry and had an answer prepared. After a year of soul-searching South Africa had decided to give their players a choice of taking a knee, raising a fist or standing to attention. Most of the squad took a knee, Elgar and a few others, chose the middle option, and two players stood. In a country where the schisms and scars of racial discrimination are fresh, all of them are likely to be criticised in some way and while it won’t be easy, Elgar was made to deal with that. He is known for having a thick skin, an essential for an opening batter, and he seems to be demanding the same of his team-mates.
Though Elgar had a lot of good things to say about South Africa’s performance in the West Indies, he acknowledged that the batting still has work to do. At one point, South Africa teetered on 73 for 7 in the second Test and their skills against the seaming ball were in the spotlight. “We’ve struggled and it’s not fine for us that we’ve struggled. We’ve addressed that and we’ve been trying to work on it,” he said. “The biggest thing is to attack your weaknesses to try to make them strengths.”
He was particularly hard on one batter, in what seems like an attempt at tough-love to bring out his best. “In my opinion, KG has let himself down when it comes to batting,” Elgar said of Kagiso Rabada, whose career-best 40 and 70-run eighth-wicket stand with Rassie van der Dussen helped South Africa set West Indies a target of over 300 in the second Test. “He is a lot more talented than what he thinks he is. It’s a conversation we had prior to leaving for the series – that he needs to work on his batting. So it was great to see him take ownership in that department.”
But Elgar was full of praise for Rabada and the rest of his attack in one of the other primary disciplines – bowling. “KG, Anna (Anrich Nortje) and Lungi (Ngidi) are a formidable threesome. They put the fear of God in batters’ eyes. They are a machine,” he said. “Their roles are so different and their roles are so big. Each guy is different in their own right. They complement each other so well.”
Although Rabada finished as the series’ leading wicket-taker, he didn’t hog the final headlines because left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj took his seventh five-for which included South Africa’s second Test hat-trick and emerged as the unlikely hero of a contest billed as a battle of the pace packs.
“Kesh is a massive player for the Proteas. What he does goes so unnoticed. He needs to get more respect,” Elgar said. “He got a Test five-for on a wicket that wasn’t turning against West Indies, away from home. That’s huge. He is a big player. He is going to become a better player going forward. He is not going to stop there. He doesn’t sound like being second best.”
Neither does Elgar, who has been a constant in South Africa’s changing Test landscape over most of the last nine years. While there are no players left from the team now that traveled to England in 2012, where South Africa became No.1, Elgar made his Test debut in the series after that, in Australia. He has since tasted the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows and has been waiting for his chance to have a say in the next stage of South African cricket’s development. While he calls this series win “massive,” he recognises that it is just a small step and that bigger strides can only be made several months from now.
South Africa do not have any Tests scheduled for the rest of the year but are expecting to host India over the festive season. Between now and then, their focus will shift to the shortest format, which Elgar is not part of. So he will return home, to rest, to play in the revamped domestic set-up once the summer starts, and to reflect and reformulate plans to ensure South Africa do not slip up when they return to the Test area.
“It’s a good time to analyse and reset and find ways to improve so you can become better. December is far away but it’s not too far away,” he said. “Against India, it’s going to be extremely tough. This period is going to be good for me to dissect and analyse.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent