Cape Town - For some 12 years and counting, South Africa
have been used to having at least one gutsy, conscientious and not always
pretty left-handed customer at the very top of their Test batting order.
SA v Oz - Day 1 as it happened
His name, of course, is Graeme Smith and he has missed very
little five-day activity for his country since his debut against Australia 116
appearances ago at Newlands in March 2002.
But the national captain is 33, has started a family and may
just wish to step off the international treadmill a bit sooner than some people
So it was arguably a symbolic development on murky, blustery
day one of the second Test against the very same Baggy Greens at St George’s
Park on Thursday that a tenacious character around seven years his junior – and
also with the cricketing abbreviation ‘LHB’ alongside his name on his profile –
showed what he is made of, at last in his preferred role of opener.
It was the first time now eight-cap Dean Elgar had partnered
the gnarly stalwart Smith upfront for the Proteas, and on the day the relative
rookie was notably more successful, spearheading a slightly fragile South
Africa’s measured progress to 214 for five at an early close due to bad light.
A little infuriatingly, he got himself out for 83 to a badly
mistimed skied drive -- when seemingly so bedded down -- in the last session
when the new ball wasn’t far away, a phenomenon that also infected debutant
Quinton de Kock as the Aussies left the field slightly on top but at least
aware that the No 1-ranked home “giant” was showing signs of awakening after
the horrors of Centurion only a few days previously.
Yet circumstance was such that Elgar could largely be
excused for his moment of relative madness after several earlier successes in
thrashing the ball over the top for emphatic fours or sixes in a hugely stabilising
vigil for the Proteas that lasted six minutes short of five hours.
It had been a topsy-turvy old lead-up few days for the
diminutive Knights player, who dropped a vital catch offered by David Warner as
a substitute in the SuperSport Park near-massacre, later got wind of the fact
that he’d probably be recalled for Port Elizabeth albeit in a middle-order slot
again, then had his national contract a little unkindly not renewed ... and
finally learnt on Thursday morning that Alviro Petersen’s illness would earn
him a crack in his favourite berth for the second Test.
Seeing big fish Smith and then Hashim Amla perish very soon
after the start (leaving the Proteas in ominous new distress at 11 for two)
wouldn’t have been the most palatable events for Elgar to absorb, and labouring
for almost three quarters of an hour just to get off the mark must have had its
slightly harrowing side for him, too.
If anything, though, surviving the early adversity – both
team and personal – only sent out a powerful reminder of his known refusal to
be ruffled, and as his innings blossomed so did reminders come to light of his
highly organised and devout formula at the crease.
He largely kept unnecessary risk to a minimum and
defensively was aided by his encouraging awareness of precisely where his
off-stump was; a key technical aspect for any batsman aspiring to shine at the
He was happy to largely be the junior partner in scoring
terms in a manna-from-heaven century partnership for the third wicket with Faf
du Plessis, and reminded of Jacques Kallis in the first half of his Test career
in his approach: watchful for very long periods on the patience-challenging
pitch, then suddenly unleashing the odd stroke absolutely bristling with intent
Some doubters of Elgar’s long-term suitability to the
Proteas side probably forget just how unsuited he is, at the end of the day, to
the No 6 or 7 roles he’s been asked to overwhelmingly fulfil in his earliest
Test matches – everything about him simply oozes “upper-order” for best
productivity as he is a born grafter and battler.
Whether he gets the chance to more regularly confirm that
now, remains to be seen (once well again, Petersen will believe he warrants
restoration at the top, even if his form has been inconsistent for a long
That said, it will not have escaped critics’ attention that after
only 10 Test knocks, Elgar is currently averaging 37.25 which is a mere
fraction behind Petersen – a faltering 37.30 after 52 innings.
But with Smith no spring chicken and having fought so many
fatiguing, momentous battles in his heyday, Elgar may reasonably soon have a
clearer ticket to a Test opener’s berth anyway ... he seems a worthy leftie in
waiting, doesn’t he?
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing