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Re-evaluating Dean Elgar: An Interview

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Dean_Elgar_South_Africa_cricket_TestHe had just become the first South African to carry his bat twice in Test history after an epic 86*against India, at the Wanderers, that spanned 356 gruelling minutes and 240 swinging, seaming, bouncing deliveries. And yet, Dean Elgar was apologetic in the post-match press conference.

It wasn’t just the 63 run defeat that was the cause of Elgar’s slumped shoulders and remorseful tone. The Proteas opener elected to use the spotlight as an opportunity for some self-admonition:

 

“I can’t go out there and play an AB [de Villiers] knock. If you want that you have to look elsewhere because I am not going to be able to do that. I am not going to be able to play a Hashim Amla knock because those are special cricketers.

 

“But what I have is potentially something they don’t have. We have guys who can grind it out and we have guys who have the ability to play special knocks. It will be awesome if I was a little bit talented.”

Journalists and broadcasters in attendance nodded along while jotting out the usual platitudes that are readily ascribed to Elgar: words like ‘tenacious’, ‘gutsy’, ‘brave’ and ‘nuggety’. The conversation swiftly moved on to the innings itself that saw Elgar cop more than a few nasty blows to the body and head, but my mind was elsewhere.

The truth is I was baffled. Here was a man who was speaking about his teammates’ abilities and their propensity for playing ‘special knocks’ after producing one of the greatest rear-guard displays I had ever seen. Here was a man who had recently been elected as part of the ICC Test team of the year after scoring 1,386 runs at 49.5 with 6 hundreds and 5 fifties (from 21 September to 31 December) confessing to insecurities over his perceived lack of talent. Something didn’t sit right with me.

Cricket is a game that largely takes subjectivity out of the conversation. A good cricketer is one who scores runs and takes wickets. Someone who has never seen a game of cricket in their life could simply look at the statistics and pick a more or less acceptable all time XI. Elgar’s numbers are good. Recently they’ve been great and yet here he was battling with what I interpreted to be an identity crisis.

I felt compelled to question the man himself and so, ahead of the four match series against Australia starting in Durban, I asked Elgar if he feels his skills as a batsman are underplayed in the media and by the fans. His answer was emphatic:

“Definitely! I’ve been quite a subdued cricketer who has just gotten on with my performances. I haven’t always got a lot of credit for them though.

 

“When people use those adjectives [tenacious, brave, etc] I think what they’re describing is my character rather than what makes me the player I am or the talent I have. I’d say my skill doesn’t get highlighted too much. Skill and character are two different things.”

 

As an opening batsman, Dean Elgar has plenty of skill. In the same mould as Alastair Cook or Graeme Smith, Elgar is a left hander with a bottom hand approach to his craft. He is quick on to anything that strays on his pads and accumulates runs with great efficiency through the on-side.

He leaves well outside his off stump but is able to come down hard on the short and wide stuff. His punch down the ground is effective and he uses it well to length balls that have not deviated off the seam.

Opening the batting is arguably the most challenging job in cricket. While it does take a strong character to successfully navigate a moving new ball, guts and bravery alone will not suffice. You need a strong defence, assured footwork and a solid technique to make it at the top of the order.

Perhaps then it is Elgar’s technique that is the cause of this misaligned viewpoint. Like Cook and Smith, Elgar isn’t particularly easy on the eye. Once compared to a ‘crab’, his approach to batting will not have youngsters clamouring to copy him.

 

“People expect a player to look a certain way but I am going to disappoint those people,” Elgar says with a wry smile, clearly conscious of the aesthetics of his game. “It’s about how effective you are on the field. In your own approach you need to find a way of dealing with things. Not many guys can look good and be effective at the same time.”

 

Elgar shares a dressing room with two players who have combined effectiveness with beauty for more than a decade. De Villiers and Amla are two of the most eye catching stroke makers in recent memory and understandably would make even their professional colleagues a touch insecure. Is this why Elgar apologised for not being able to replicate them out in the middle?

“Firstly, I wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t true,” Elgar says. “I’m a man of honesty and the guys take the piss out of me for that. Secondly, AB and Hash are legends of the game. I’ve had the privilege of watching them play but I’m not going to come out and try to emulate them by scoring a run a ball hundred. The team needs a guy who can score at a strike rate of 40 or 50 and provide a platform for the rest of the team.”

Elgar described his illustrious teammates as ‘special cricketers’ but he has outscored both of them over the past two years. In fact, Elgar has outscored every one of his teammates since February 2016. If one extends the period to the last five years, only Amla has registered more runs for his country than Elgar.

In the previous five years, Elgar is fifth most prolific opening batsman in world cricket with 2,635 runs at 44.66. Only David Warner (4,980), Alastair Cook (4,839), Murali Vijay (3,148) and Dimuth Karunaratne (2,975) have scored more in this time but all have played significantly more matches than Elgar’s 37.

It would seem that the recognition by the ICC has not appeared out of the blue, as some might have thought. But it will certainly go a long way to rectifying the narrative that Elgar is little more than a gutsy fighter compensating for a lack of ability.

 

“I hope it does, but I don’t want too much of the light shining on me.” Elgar says. “It was a good year where I helped contribute to the side. Rahul Dravid used to say, ‘Look after cricket and the game will look after you.’ That has made me think about my game. You can’t take your position for granted. That mantra has kept me grounded.”

 

In person, Elgar is a straight talking, humble man who is clearly proud of his accomplishments and the position he finds himself in as a professional cricketer. Though he admits to a frustration of being left out of South Africa’s limited overs plans, he does not speak with any bitterness.

He laughs when I ask him about his relationship with the media and his easy-going demeanour in press conferences, where his dry wit often has seasoned journalists cackling and forgetting their rehearsed questions.

“I try and make a lot of humour. Some guys might not like the humour but I think the majority of the journos appreciate it. I’m like that off the field. I like to have a laugh and have a beer. But once I cross the field I’m a different guy.”

Elgar now turns his attention to the hostile Australian attack but says he will not be changing too much in the way he prepares his game. He has likened Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood to the Indian seamers, who he admits took the South Africans by surprise with their speed through the air and movement off the deck.

The incoming tourists have not lost a series in South Africa since Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards handed out a 4-0 hiding to Bill Lawry’s men in 1970 and both sides have some old scores to settle across the four matches.

If Faf du Plessis is to achieve a famous victory, he will need a solid platform cemented by his experienced lieutenant at the top of the order.

Against the dangerous Aussie trio, Elgar will need to show a lot of tenacity, bravery and guts; traits we all know he has in abundance. Be sure to also pay attention to the immense skill he possesses. It shouldn’t be hard to spot; it’s been hiding in plain sight this whole time.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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