Cape Town – Dean Elgar, the Proteas’ stand-in captain for suspended Faf du Plessis, has the opportunity to coax a “no let-up” spirit from his charges in the dead-rubber third Test against Pakistan at the Wanderers from Friday.
If he can achieve that hallmark – and he is very much the type to try to inspire by example – he should be in a doubly strong position to push for an identical 3-0 sweep as occurred in the last home series against these foes, under Graeme Smith’s already long-serving leadership, almost six years ago.
Then, the uncompromising “Biff” clearly managed to quell too much talk in the SA dressing room of dead rubber as his side produced probably their most compelling cricket of the series to win by an innings and 18 runs in game three at nearby SuperSport Park.
It was the contest where Kyle Abbott - now lost to the national cause on a Kolpak deal in England - made his debut and promptly recorded successive figures of 7/29 and 2/39 to earn the player-of-the-match mantle.
Pakistan basically wilted as a batting unit after the Proteas had taken first strike and posted 400-plus, powered by a century from AB de Villiers and 92 from Hashim Amla.
Now Elgar is charged with similarly ensuring that complacency takes a back seat in the ranks, no doubt well appreciative of the fact that a 3-0 thrashing will look a lot better on paper than 2-1 (a draw seems fairly unlikely, considering that South Africa haven’t experienced one in fully 18 Tests since their fortuitous, weather-aided escape against New Zealand at Hamilton in 2016/17).
Pakistan, after all, are a strictly mid-table, humdrum sixth on the current Test rankings and still among the Subcontinent teams – India now a notable exception - yet to show the kind of consistent mettle needed to earn success on southern-hemisphere pitches like those presented here and in Australia.
Nevertheless, dead-rubber Tests are traditionally strange, tough-to-call beasts: you are never quite sure what levels of motivation will be mustered either by the team that has already clinched the series or by the confirmed “second fiddle” side, who may be ready to simply capitulate further or, by contrast, suddenly find some degree of emotional freedom and an associated second wind.
In trying to gauge how “up for it” the Proteas will be in the Bullring over the next few days, a glance at their recent examples of dead-rubber Test matches (whether from positions where they have already won or lost series) doesn’t provide an ideal yardstick, either.
In five further dead-rubber games since that last Pakistan series of 2012/13, South Africa have won two and lost three.
Of the two victories, one has come with the Proteas already sealed as series winners (against Sri Lanka on our soil in 2016/17, making for a 3-0 sweep at the very same Wanderers) and the other when they had already been confirmed as losers against the England tourists of 2015/16 – South Africa earned a consolation fourth-Test triumph at Centurion by 280 runs, the “Kagiso Rabada Test” as the young paceman claimed an eye-opening 7/112 and 6/32 to narrow the gap to 2-1, with one stalemate.
When it comes to the three dead-rubber losses by the Proteas in the period mentioned, at least one carried a reasonable excuse as it was their maiden sampling of a day/night pink-ball Test, against Australia at Adelaide Oval in 2016/17; their opponents were more streetwise at the time in that particular environment, plus SA had already closed the series deal with memorable wins in Perth and Hobart.
The last SA defeat in a dead-rubber Test has been the Johannesburg (third Test) contest against India last season when, although safely 2-0 to the good already, the Proteas had the unenviable task of batting last on a controversially spiteful pitch.
Although Elgar, who valiantly carried his bat for 86, and Amla had given them a better than expected top-order platform in their chase of a target of 241 – significantly more challenging than it may look on paper – the last nine wickets crashed for 53 runs as India prevailed by a margin of 63 runs to avert a whitewash.
This particular “dead” Test?
Perhaps I should do no more than state the obvious: South Africa seem the clear enough favourites ahead of its first ball on Friday at 10:00 …
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