Relieved of the Test match captaincy, South Africa need Dean Elgar to return to his run-scoring best
Friday was a day filled with announcements for Cricket South Africa. They announced their Test squad for the West Indies series, the Test captaincy changed from Dean Elgar to Temba Bavuma and the latter also gave up his T20I captaincy.
Consecutive Test series losses to England and Australia over the last six months as well as a group stage exit from the T20 World Cup meant changes were likely under a new coach in Shukri Conrad. He hasn’t shied away from making big decisions in selecting his first Test squad.
Elgar was made permanent Test match captain in June 2021 and, for a time, it looked as if he had the role nailed. South Africa swept past West Indies with a 2-0 series victory in his first assignment and then went on to take down India at home, a notable victory after going 1-0 down in the first Test at Centurion. Once again demonstrating their bouncebackability, Elgar’s South Africa drew their following two-match series in New Zealand after getting beaten by an innings in the first game. Without his IPL stars, Elgar used spin duo Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer to then defeat Bangladesh at home less than a month later.
Four series into his Test captaincy, Elgar hadn’t lost a series in charge. Cycle forward less than a year and he is no longer South Africa’s captain.
Elgar’s importance to the South African batting line-up is highlighted by the correlation between his own form and his team’s – both plummeted simultaneously. Since his fifty against Bangladesh in April, he hasn’t scored another in 12 innings. South Africa have only one Test win in that time.
The trouble for both South Africa and Elgar started after handing Ben Stokes’ England their first and, so far, only defeat at Lord’s by an innings and 12 runs. They haven’t won any of their five Tests since then, drawing one and losing the rest. So, what has gone wrong?
The answers lie mostly in South Africa’s struggles with the bat. In the five games since their win at Lord’s, they have scored over 200 runs collectively in the first innings just once. In this regard, there are some mitigating factors. Several of the matches they have played, most notably at The Oval and the Gabba, were collectively low-scoring affairs. At the Gabba, they lost wickets less often than Australia but still found themselves on the wrong side of the result thanks largely to Travis Head’s 96-ball-92.
In addition, the pitches South Africa have played on recently have been largely bowler friendly, with a good first innings score looking more like 250 than 450. But in other games, they were well below par.
A turning point was their series against England and their response to Stokes and Brendon McCullum’s new approach. Elgar was questioned often about the then-new phenomenon, but his answers did little to suggest he was entirely comfortable with the style. Rather, in more colloquial terms, he seemed rattled.
Before the series, he said: “I’ve got absolutely no interest in the style that they’ve played. I think it can go one of two ways for them and it can go south very quickly.” Before confidently stating he’d like to see England “do it against our seamers.”
Even after losing the series where it was England’s seamers that ran riot through the South Africa batters, he said: “I don’t think they played extraordinary cricket. I thought they played the correct tempo. I didn’t see that B-word coming through at all.”
He was partially right – England were tame compared to their antics against New Zealand and Pakistan, and his side remain the only team to have taken a game off Stokes and McCullum. However, the way he spoke about the opposition did not seem to inspire performances out of his team. Moreover, he also failed to lead from the front with the bat, making it past 30 only twice in his five innings in England. In the six innings he played against Australia, he failed to do so at all. If South Africa’s results are to turn around, not only do they need strong leadership from their captain but runs from their rock at the top of the order.
Bavuma is now Test captain, a decision many believed should have happened when Elgar was initially appointed. His close relationship with the new coach was a decisive factor according to Conrad in his first interview at the helm. He has a tough job to do and, as the old adage goes, when the results are going in your team’s favour captaincy will always be easier, but when they go the other way the captain is the first to be blamed.
Under Bavuma, there might be a more positive approach judging by selections. Amongst the most eye-catching, Aiden Markram looks set to return to opening the batting after being dropped for the series against Australia, while Henrich Klaasen has been picked over Kyle Verreynne despite the latter being one of the better performers during the Elgar era. Klaasen enjoyed a good ODI series against England so might be there to add some impetus that has been lacking since Quinton de Kock retired from the format.
South Africa will no doubt be unwilling to utter the word ‘Bazball’ in relation to their selections, but there is a hint of it in their choices. Nevertheless, while the end of Elgar’s tenure has been somewhat abrupt, as ever they will rely on his continued presence and uptick in his returns at the top of the order as they move forwards into a new chapter.