Australia in SA

Smith’s successor in making?

2014-02-20 22:30
Dean Elgar (AFP)

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 think.

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 highest level.

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 and aggression.

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 time).

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?

Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  ozinsa  |  graeme smith  |  dean elgar  |  cape town  |  cricket

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