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(CRICINFO) Scoring hundreds, taking five-fors and becoming more consistent. These are on Dean Elgar’s agenda as South Africa embark on a(nother) new era next month. Elgar will lead the team on a two-Test tour of the West Indies starting June 10, a series that was supposed to happen this time last year, as they aim to rebuild their red-ball game following two summers of indifferent performances.
Since Mark Boucher took over in the tumultuous summer of 2019, the South Africa have played just eight Tests, lost five and slipped to their lowest position on the rankings – No. 7. They have had three major retirements including former captains Hashim Amla – who continues to churn out runs in the County Championship – and Faf du Plessis, and star seamer Vernon Philander.
Elgar has been given the job for the next two years, effectively the next World Test Championship cycle, and knows it will be difficult. “Now that we are in a new chapter, we need to play more cricket and better cricket,” he said on Saturday, ahead of the team’s departure to St Lucia via Paris. “We are conscious that over the last period we haven’t been very consistent. Our skill level hasn’t been where it should be. We need to get back to a bit more of a consistent nature of cricket; a bit more of a South African way.”
Which is what, exactly?
“We’ve always had a batting line-up that has scored heavily. And fast bowlers. That’s the South African way,” Elgar said. “We need to get back to scoring big hundreds and taking five-fors like it used to be.”
You’d be forgiven for not recognising those things as hallmarks of the “South African way” because for the last two seasons they have hardly done any of that. Since December 2019, only Afghanistan have recorded fewer Test hundreds (two in two matches) than South Africa (three in eight) and they have played in far fewer Test matches.
South Africa’s century scarcity has causes ranging from lack of confidence to tough conditions but ultimately, it has raised questions about whether they have the correct personnel in place to bat big. And they will be raised again on this tour. While Elgar and Markram are proven performers, the two Tests against West Indies is an opportunity for new vice-captain Temba Bavuma, with only one Test hundred in five years to his name, to step up, for Rassie van der Dussen to add to his first international century that came in an ODI in April and for Quinton de Kock to show he has recovered from the failed captaincy experiment. It is also a chance for a new middle-order batter to be blooded following du Plessis’ retirement.
That player is likely to be Keegan Petersen, who Elgar seems to rate highly. “He has got a few years under his belt, domestically, and has scored a lot of runs,” he said. “He has got a good energy, good attitude and he brings a different kind of dynamic to our line-up.”
Petersen has been in and around the set-up since he topped the first-class run charts in the 2018-19 summer, when he averaged 60.88. He was mentored by then-batting consultant Jacques Kallis in the 2019-20 season and was part of the squad that traveled to Pakistan. He is likely to get the nod ahead of Kyle Verreynne, who was third in last season’s first-class competition and is one of the other reserve batters in the group.
South Africa are also heading to the Caribbean with the “luxury,” as Elgar put it, of four spinners in preparation for “low and slow,” conditions. Keshav Maharaj will lead the pack with other options including George Linde, Tabraiz Shamsi and Prenelan Subrayen.
Despite the expectation that spin will play a big role, it’s the other bowling discipline that Elgar wants to see improvement in. A six-seamer group will want to make a statement in this series, especially as South Africa have underperformed in this department too. They’ve managed six five-fors in eight Tests since December 2019, with Maharaj and Linde responsible for two of them. Beuran Hendricks and Anrich Nortje (three times) claimed the other four but Kagiso Rabada, the spearhead of the attack, has not taken a five-for in 17 Tests, since March 2018.
That was when South Africa beat Australia and it’s fair to say, it’s been mostly downhill since. It’s up to Elgar to try and reverse the team’s direction and he will start by working on their mental states. “It’s trying to change players’ mindsets; to try and get that buy-in from every individual and to try and get them to trust your process going forward,” he said. “One of the more challenging aspects of the job will be to try and get the trust of the players so that they can trust the process, to believe in the process and to do it quickly and adapt quickly. It’s something I believe very strongly in.”
Elgar’s era begins with the first Test on June 10. South Africa fly out on Monday and will serve a three-day quarantine on arrival in St Lucia. Provided they return two negative Covid-19 tests, they will be allowed to train from the fourth day but will remain limited to their rooms and will be able to make use of all the hotel’s facilities after seven days.
While West Indies have begun the process of vaccinating their players , the South African players have been vaccinated as part of the Sisonke trial, a scheme running in the country for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson jab which has been made available to health workers and those from various sporting bodies.