Sent in to bat in the first Test in Christchurch, South Africa were bowled out for 95 in the first innings, and 111 in the second, losing by an innings and 276 runs. So when Dean Elgar opted for first strike in the second Test, his decision had every chance of biting him in the back. But Elgar went by what he saw on the pitch, nothing else, and chose not to take the "the easy, soft decision" of bowling because, well, that's not him.
"Visually, the wicket did look a lot different to the first Test, so it wasn't as green, there was a lot less green grass, maybe a lot more browner grass on the wicket. So it did look a bit like a bat-first wicket," Elgar said after South Africa won the second Christchurch Test by 198 runs to square the series. "I think, because of what happened in the first Test, the easy, soft decision would have always been to bowl first after winning the toss. My nature, my character as a leader, is not to take the easy way out. It's obviously to run towards the pressure that you're facing and, yeah, sometimes you have to make these tough calls for your squad, and it was great to see the guys respond.
"The wicket played quite nicely in our favour. It was maybe a little bit slower. The bowlers still posed quite a tough challenge for us up front. But we managed to negate it and put on a good opening-wicket partnership [of 111 runs, between Elgar and Sarel Erwee]. But yeah, basically the decision was purely about us playing a positive brand of cricket and playing off the front foot. And for me, taking the easy way out is… doesn't sit well for me."
After South Africa won the initial exchanges, they scored 364, bowled New Zealand out for 293, put up 354 for 9 before declaring and setting New Zealand 426 to win. Then they finished the hosts off for 227. One-all. Crucial World Test Championship points in the bag. And a happy feeling all around.
"One-all, coming to New Zealand, I think at the start of the series I would have taken the result," Elgar said. "It was a little bit difficult for us to take things after that first Test because there were so many learnings, and we didn't really pitch up in that first game. But to see the boys bounce back showed a lot of character, showed a lot of growth and maturity."
The other brave decision was playing Keshav Maharaj after neither side fielded a frontline spinner in the first Test. Kagiso Rabada had said earlier that when the South Africans saw the pitch before the start of play, they felt the dryness of the pitch would ensure the "footmarks would be created for Keshav to exploit" as the game wore on. Maharaj picked up one wicket in the first innings, and three in the second, including those of top-order batters Henry Nicholls and Daryl Mitchell, bowling both of them.
"He has always been someone that is a banker of mine, and I know what I get from when it comes to playing in a competitive nature," Elgar said.
There were many heartening takeaways from the Test for South Africa, as is often the case after a special win. Erwee, for example. Kyle Verreynne too. Erwee was playing his second Test. And Verreynne his sixth. Both scored their maiden centuries in Test cricket.
"I think his story is a lot deeper than just playing cricket. He is a little bit older, and he understands the concept of hard work," Elgar said of Erwee, his new opening partner. "I think he came close not too long ago to giving up the game, which would have been a massive loss. So I think he understands the concept of working for what you believe and where you feel you can be one day.
"He's great. He is a good team man. He is always looking to influence. It's never about him, it's always about what he can do for the side. So, for me, it's not surprising that he has come in and done well. He is an inexperienced Test cricketer, but he isn't an inexperienced cricketer with regards to the bigger scheme of things."
About Verreynne, South Africa's first-choice wicketkeeper-batter in Tests after Quinton de Kock's surprise retirement from the format, Elgar was equally effusive. "Great to see his natural ability come out and kick in," he said. "A lot of scrutiny has been put on his plate, too early in his career, which is a little bit unfair. Bear in mind that he has got a massive role to play being a wicketkeeper-batter. But yeah, great to see him come out and do what he does best."
Rabada was Player of the Match for his haul of eight wickets, Marco Jansen picked up seven, and crucial runs came from many batters, but there was an innings of 42, scored off 103 balls in just over two hours, that meant a lot for South Africa. Because it came from Aiden Markram, whose best score in his previous five Tests was 31. The 42 wasn't earth-shattering, but it was good for a man under pressure.
"There's no doubt that Aiden has been under pressure a little bit from a run-scoring point of view," Elgar said. "I've always said Aiden's one innings away from being back in form. He got some runs in the first innings, which was great to see. It's good for him. Hopefully the confidence that he brings, or gets out of that innings, goes a long way for him.
"I know he has a lot more in the tank when it comes to scoring runs, and I can see the disappointment that he goes through when he fails."