Dean Elgar has made his name as a gritty opening batsman, with a safe pair of hands in the slips and an ever-ready enthusiasm to turn his arm over when the going gets tough. He is also just about the senior-most batsman in South Africa's Test team (Faf du Plessis debuted one Test before him) and crucial in its transition over the next few years. He spoke about the challenges of the past season, the Test captaincy role, and the changes in cricket over the eight years of his international career.
It was a quite an eventful summer for South African cricket. How would you sum it up?
Honestly, I had actually even forgotten who we played this last season. Before this interview, I asked the media manager to remind me. I think we went through two or three different phases as a team where we had retirements, then injuries, and then new players coming in. It's been like that for the last five years. And then we also had a change of coach and that requires the buy-in of players, so it has been a little bit of a roller coaster. Hopefully it will settle down, for the players' sanity.
How did the change of coach impact the players?
Mark Boucher has brought in a totally different environment during a difficult time. He is quite reliant on players he has worked with in the past and has used that to fast-track the team culture. It hasn't been that easy for him, and I think he is still trying to finalise a Test XI, or finalise a squad of players to work with.
Would you consider yourself one of those players he leans on?
Definitely. I worked quite closely with him at the Titans and most of the time I was a senior player and sometimes even the captain. We are quite similar people and we understand each other quite well.
Given your seniority and the fact that South Africa's Test captaincy role is still vacant, will you be making a case to take over the job?
The captaincy is not like going for a job interview, where you hand in your CV. You don't put your hand up for it. It's something that's decided by someone else and it's who they think is the best person for the job. It's good for players to have confidence and back their abilities, but when you do that, you can put yourself in an exposed position.
"I'll play for as long as possible and then I think my career will end in England, as an overseas player"
Did you notice the captaincy affecting du Plessis in the past summer?
If you as a captain aren't getting results, then pressure builds. The World Cup didn't work in his favour and then everything snowballed from there. He would have known whether it was the right time to step down or not.
Did that put a little more pressure on you to share some of the burden?
There is always responsibility on a player that has been around for a few years. And even if you feel like you as a person are doing okay, everything else around you is failing. We were inconsistent as a team. I felt anxious to make an extra play, and there were times when I thought if I just hung around a little longer I could have broken the opposition.
Do you think it has something to do with how many opening partners you have had?
It is an aspect, but it is not an excuse. I have had eight opening partners [nine if Vernon Philander is included] in the last five years. We have got a good team and good players but we need to get some stability so that we can start ticking boxes in green instead of red.
And you also played against really good opposition. Having faced India and England several times before, would you say their bowlers have improved?
India have set the bar with their standard of play, and they have a very good, balanced attack. And then if you look at England and a guy like Mark Wood, for example, he doesn't play a lot, so he doesn't have a lot to lose. When they let him out of the cage, he can just go full tilt. That helps an attack. But overall, bowlers have definitely upped their game. Gone are the days when batters used to dominate and you had maybe a 60-40 split.
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Have pitches had a role in any of that?
We have had indifferent wickets over the last few years, and then in the subcontinent we also get totally different wickets. Those are just the factors you have to take into consideration as an international player, and maybe it has changed something in the game. A few summers ago, we were under a different coach, and we were chasing results, so we had different pitches. It was almost like you want to win before you have played the full five days. And then you neglect one side of your game to bring out your advantage in the other. There was a desperation.
That's not a word that was associated with South African cricket when your career started in 2012, was it?
In 2012, we had big, tall fast bowlers, and guys like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis who could just puff out their chests and they were intimidating. They didn't need to say too much. Now you can't really go hard at guys, and you don't want to be in a situation where you do something and then are banned, because you are letting the team down. We have seen that with KG [Kagiso Rabada] recently, and that's just pure emotion. It shouldn't be taken out of the game. In 2012, we had big, imposing guys; now you can't say boo to a goose. You need to be more cautious.
What are the other differences between the set-up you debuted in and the one now?
Everything has changed. When I started in 2012, I didn't have much of a say. I was just happy to be around guys like Kallis, Smith, AB de Villiers. For me, it was just to keep quiet and play. As time has gone on, I have become more senior and I have more of an influence over the environment. It's almost like you have to learn quite quickly and fast-track your leadership skills, which at 32 are maybe not that good because you missed a few steps along the way.
Are you more the keep-quiet-and-play type or do you like to have your say?
Both come quite naturally to me, but I would rather be someone that people look up to. I'm not a taker, I am more of a giver in the dressing room and I think that's my best quality.
Did you find yourself giving a lot over the last summer?
I think so, especially with certain players. With someone like Pieter Malan, for example, he is 31 and he is comfortable in his own skin, but he wasn't used to the intensity of international cricket, where you don't get any bad balls. In domestic cricket, maybe you get two bad balls an over and you can hit them both for four. So it was about telling him those things and how to try to slow the game down.
How would you assess the batsmen coming through the domestic scene?
They look like they are very talented and carefree. There's not a lot of fear of failure. They're young, so maybe that's a generational thing.
Since 2015, you have averaged almost 54 in List A cricket for the Titans under Boucher as coach. Considering he knows what you're capable of, and that you have often expressed an interest in playing ODIs, do you think that door is still open?
I would like to think that everything I have done in the last few years has enhanced my ability and shown that I can be considered. I will have a chat with Boucher, probably fairly soon, and hopefully there is still an opportunity for me.
"Captaincy is not like going for a job interview where you hand in your CV. You don't put your hand up for it"
We have spoken a lot about challenges, now let's focus on some of the highlights, like beating Australia...
Twice, actually, away from home. I think we have beaten them in every Test series I have played against them [Ed: three out of four. South Africa lost a home series to Australia in 2014]. But every series win is special. We have beaten India at home, which is also saying something. India are right up there, and they have the right to be like that. They have the best players in the world and they are extremely competitive. We haven't beaten England since I have been playing, so that's something missing.
What are your other goals in the next stage of your career?
I am trying to be more consistent. I have found that there are series where I start well but I don't end well, or I start badly and then I pick it up at the end. I'll play for as long as possible and then I think my career will end in England, as an overseas player.
So you really enjoy heading over for county stints?
I was taking this winter off. It's good for learning. You get to know yourself. You become mature as a player. As an overseas player, you are expected to do well in every game. You also have a lot more responsibility. Most of the time you live alone, so you have to get used to doing your own washing, kind of like in lockdown.
South Africa are two months into the nationwide lockdown, which is among the strictest in the world. What have you been doing in this time?
Usually I play golf, sometimes three or four rounds a week, so with no golf and no cricket, I have just been getting to know myself better. And I have been cycling and running on the estate. We have all been put on a program by CSA, so you can't just clutch out and get fat. I'm not a handyman, but every few days I have been cutting the grass. And then I have been watching some Netflix here and there, but nothing too much. It's a frustrating time for everyone.