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One man who wasn’t surprised when Dean Elgar smashed a six to bring up his most positive, aggressive hundred of his career in these conditions was his long-time coach Louis Klopper. Klopper was at his school in South Africa, following the match online and trying to get an occasional glimpse on television. He laughed when asked if Elgar’s refreshing approach on the verge of the milestone took him by surprise. Elgar’s wonderful 160 and Quinton de Kock’s stroke-filled 111 propelled South Africa’s heart-warming fight that has perked up the series, which looked dire after the visiting team’s top order perished on Thursday evening.
“You thought you would see the 2015 version, eh?” Klopper is still laughing, referring to Elgar’s horror series the last time he was in India. In that fateful series, Elgar had made just 137 in 7 innings at an average of 19.5.
“I am not surprised but really happy and I will tell you why: This is how he used to play in his younger days, before his international debut. A free-flowing batsman who would dominate. He slowly changed in character as he grew, and he knows his role as a Test opener demands that he puts in the hard yards for the sake of the team,” Klopper says.
Elgar’s was a knock full of heart and skill. Whenever Ashwin flighted one on a driveable length, Elgar stretched out for drives and lofted hits down the ground. Very soon, they had to place boundary-patrollers. There was a lovely cover drive early on against Ashwin that warmed the heart of his father Richard, and right away he knew he could be in for a special day. He too couldn’t see the full knock as he has been busy with shifting homes but had one eye on the game and did catch up on the hundred moment. “Jah! I did see that!”
It wasn’t a surprise that Elgar was harsh on Ravindra Jadeja as he has the fourth-highest strike rate in the world against left-arm spinners since 2010, plundering at 4.91 runs per over against them. It helped South Africa that Jadeja was, for the most part, expensive and not his usual metronomic self, often dropping the ball short or over-compensating with overpitched deliveries.
Both Klopper and Elgar Senior were particularly pleased by how he tackled Ashwin with aplomb. He used the feet well to drive and loft, deployed the square-slash on the front foot, and strived to play as close to the body as possible. When he got to that hundred, Ashwin gave him a generous applause, acknowledging the victor of the battle. He stood on the middle stump guard, with his bat on the off stump line for Ashwin. For Jadeja, at times, he stood on the off-stump line. Both ploys worked well to nullify the spinners.
Last time, when Elgar was in India, the pitches were beastly turners and he couldn’t cope. When he went back home, he told his father that he was caught with his pants down and needed to find a way. “He is a very stubborn lad, once he puts his mind to anything, he does it,” Richard says.
Elgar needed all that bloody-mindedness as he has been underappreciated by fans in his country. “In the past, I haven’t been given a lot of credit for what I have done. I don’t think there is a big relationship between me and South African cricket fans. A lot of time what I have done has been brushed under the carpet,” he had told this newspaper last year.
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It would be very difficult for the fans to brush away this knock, though. It was the intent that stood out. They were four wickets down pretty early in the third morning but Elgar kept on pressing ahead. He didn’t have a clear plan last time around here, switching from slog-sweeps against the turn and hard-pushes, to even an unwise reverse-sweep that had prompted Klopper, the coach, to share this nice moment: “I used to always tell him — you reverse-sweep only after you get a hundred. But he played one shot there and later told me that he immediately thought of me — that he shouldn’t have played it!”
The shot selection was well nigh flawless this time. When he was on the front foot, he was really out there stretching and more importantly, trusted his hands to go through the line of the ball. No self-doubts or second thoughts. He did reverse-sweep after the hundred, pulled out the slog-sweeps against Jadeja, and since the turn was slow, he waited on the backfoot and played quite a few late cuts past slips, a shot that was picked up by the other centurion, Quinton de Kock, who went on a shot-making spree en route to a hundred of his own.
De Kock’s hundred was great to watch but it has to be said that he owed it to the path cleared by Elgar. De Kock’s only test was how he fared against Ashwin, especially early on in his knock as, in the past, he has been a bit vulnerable against the off-spinner. He started off conservatively against Ashwin, took his chances against Jadeja, and once he settled down, it didn’t matter who was bowling. The cover drives and the cuts flowed as he pressed on imperiously.
Louis Klopper likes to predict events in Elgar’s life. When he was nine, Louis told Richard that his son would one day play for South Africa. On the morning after he was felled by Jasprit Bumrah in the Jo’berg Test in 2018, Louis told this newspaper that he expected Elgar to hit a hundred. He did. When Elgar was dropped on 74 by Wriddhiman Saha, who failed to hold on to an outside edge off Jadeja, Louis was agog: “He would carry his bat today, watch!” Perhaps, the only prediction that didn’t materialise as Elgar fell, miscuing a slog-sweep off Jadeja, and his head sunk immediately after making contact with the bat. He could still have hoped he might survive but Cheteshwar Pujara rushed in from deep midwicket to take a good tumbling catch.
He has hit hundreds, captained the team but he still doesn’t think he owns the opening spot in the team. Too hard on himself? “The moment I believe I have done it and it’s my position for the taking, that’s the danger area for me. I must always try to better myself. That’s who I am. You need to be hard on yourself,” Elgar had told this paper last year. No wonder, he looked distraught when he walked back after being dismissed as if he had fallen for a duck.
When he looks at the highlights, even he would probably pat himself on the back and also, smile. There were several delightful lofted hits to the straight boundary, and even Elgar, who thinks he can “make batting look ugly at times”, can let himself a proud and happy smile.
In the last year’s chat, he had said something about dealing with the absence of appreciation from fans that comes to the mind now. “I create a vibe around myself. And I am not a big person to really let go and enjoy people kissing my arse for doing something that I am supposed to do!” Well, he did what he was supposed to do and resuscitated South Africa.