Dean Elgar can sometimes make playing and missing seem like an art. He plays, he misses, he smiles. He does it repeatedly over the course of an innings but the manner in which he then focuses on the next ball is a skill not many can master. The tougher the conditions, the more he relishes his time in the middle. The better the opposition, the more he wants to be the thorn in their side. The bigger the occasion, the more he is up for it.
The brilliant 185 at the Centurion in the first Test against India showed just how valuable a batter of his kind can be in difficult conditions. It may not be apparent now, given that his innings had a strike-rate of 64.45, but Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj were getting the ball to scythe parabolas in the early part of the South African innings.
But this is exactly where the scrapper bides his time. How you look isn’t important… the only thing that matters is whether you are still standing at the end of that torrid session… have you managed to ride out the wave? It may look ugly at times but very often, in their case, the goal justifies the means.
Still, even as we praise Elgar, it must be noted that his type of batting is fast going out of fashion. In an era defined by the quick fix, who has time to watch a batter wear down the opposition? Usman Khawaja can play with immense patience as can Marnus Labushagne. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane could do it for India.
But few teams want batters to go about in this manner anymore. If you are spending time in the middle, you might as well score a few runs. The art of the grind is in danger of being forgotten; a non-essential in a world strapped for time.
Pujara was forever on the cusp of being pushed out of the Indian team because he was too slow. Come a tour of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand or England, he was still wanted in the team but in more batter-friendly conditions, it always felt like a stroke-maker would be more welcome. Everyone wants to fight fire with fire when water will do just as well.
It is perhaps how the game has moved forward. Fans appreciate a four or a six far more than a perfect front-foot defence or for that matter, teams seem to want a player who will move the game forward, not just one who loves the idea of just batting and staying in the middle for as long as possible. Old-fashioned, they call it.
While watching the Aussies bowl over the Pakistan batting line-up in the current Test series, it is hard not to think of how Pujara simply stood up to them in manner that now seems almost beyond replication. The soft hands in defence, the willpower to stick to his method, the concentration to bat on and on. Australian skipper Pat Cummins called him a “brick wall” but he was so much more, a rock that India built history around.
It changes how a bowler has to go about things because if the scrappers get it right, a lot of overs are going to have to be bowled. You got at them with a vengeance and they’ll respond by soaking it all in and making it a battle of attrition.
Cummins, for instance, bowled bowled 145 overs in the 2018 series. In 2020-21 series, he bowled 162.1 overs. It isn’t a conventional counterattack, rather it eats away at your very soul. It works you into the ground and for years, this too has been a Test match staple.
At the end of this series, Elgar will hang up his boots and his dwindling kind will lose another hero. He played a few more shots in the course of his innings, showing that he’s always had the shots, than he usually does but filling the void left by his retirement won’t be easy, both for South Africa and Test cricket.