The two things Dean Elgar has enjoyed most about the last seven days is the silence and the chance to reflect on two highly competitive games of cricket, away from the sideshows that have surrounded them.
“There’s been so much noise that people have actually forgotten there is such a great Test series happening between two strong and competitive teams. The backroom noise is hindering what has been quite an exciting Test series,” Elgar said, as South Africa resumed training after a week’s break ahead of the third Test against Australia at Newlands.
The match starts on Thursday, which has effectively meant a 10-day period for the teams to get away from each other, and on the evidence of the first two Tests, they needed that. Everything from the stairwell saga to the send-offs has been laced with aggression and intensity. Those close to the Australian camp have gone as far as to say the temperature of this series has been hotter than recent Ashes’ contests and the South Africans, usually a passionate but not overly petulant lot, have also turned on the heat.
Elgar, one of the pricklier characters in the squad, admitted he has also got involved. “There’s been a lot of niggle. It comes from both sides. It’s what you expect when you are playing against quality opposition. The intensity should be there. That’s what makes the format exciting,” he said. “I’ve been on the receiving end of it and I have also been one to give it out a bit, in all the right measurements.”
The “right measurements”, as Elgar put it, have been debated throughout this series and, so far, no one can provide a recipe as to what those might be. Steven Smith has, on several occasions, insisted there is a line his team does not cross while Faf du Plessis has endorsed chirping as good for the game but said he would not advocate swearing. And then there’s the physical side of things. From David Warner needing to be physically restrained in the episode with Quinton de Kock, to the shoulder brush between Kagiso Rabada and Steven Smith, Elgar is right when he said this series is less about cricket and more about contact.
A tweet on Vernon Philander’s account went as far as to suggest simulation could even come into the picture, but the message was deleted a few ours after it was posted and Philander claimed his account was hacked. And so the silence Elgar was enjoying might have been broken in the middle of the break, when it suddenly emerged that there may be a new flashpoint.
Though very little has been made of the post on Philander’s account and the subsequent backtracking from it, that could change. Cameron Bancroft has already suggested Australia will use the tweet to try and unnerve the seamer on his home ground; the same venue where he played a major part in bowling them out for 47 in his debut Test series in 2011.
Elgar suspects it will take more than that to get under Philander’s skin. “He’ll take it in his stride like Vern does. He is quite a relaxed human being but on the field he is as competitive as anyone else,” Elgar said. “He is going to expect that they are going to come out and say something to him on the field, and I am sure he is going to be prepared for that.”
Philander might have other things to think about than what the Australians have to say. Should South Africa be without Kagiso Rabada – whose appeal hearing against a Level 2 charge extended to over six hours today – Philander will lead an attack that will likely include the retiring Morne Morkel and the inexperience of Lungi Ngidi. South Africa will have to find a way to take wickets without their leading bowler.
Though the players have tried not to become preoccupied with the Rabada proceedings, they understand losing him would be a big deal. “As players, we are just trying to isolate ourselves away from that situation. We know we don’t have any influence over what has happened or what can happen. It would be nice to put it behind us,” Elgar said. “Having KG [Rabada] in our side is massive for us. It’s massive for the game, massive for the format, because KG is an extremely special cricketer. But we do know there are rules. We respect that. If he is good to go for the third Test, it will be awesome for us and awesome of the game.”
In the meanwhile, Elgar would like to concentrate on his own game and on finding the form that had him finish as the third-highest run-scorer in Test cricket last year. Elgar’s 2017 included 1128 runs from 12 Tests at 53.71 with five centuries, but he has only managed 285 runs from five Tests this year at 31.66.
He accepted that “it was always going to be difficult to follow-up on what was a very good year”, but would like to start contributing more, especially because of his returns so far. He was dismissed in single-figures in both innings in the first Test and the second innings of the second Test; his only score in double-figures so far this series was a stubborn 57 in Port Elizabeth. “I feel that I am batting nicely. I am getting through all the tough parts and then I am letting myself down with silly, stupid, uncharacteristic kind of dismissals,” Elgar said. “I know it’s not what the team requires, our team requires me to try bat out a day.”
His half-century, which took five hours and six minutes to score, used up most of a day and helped lay a platform for South Africa to take a match-winning first-innings lead in Port Elizabeth. But on either side of that knock, Elgar has twice been caught and bowled by Nathan Lyon and desperately wants to change his record against the spinner.
“I have handled him quite [badly],” Elgar said. “Like I said, silly dismissals that are uncharacteristic of me. In the past I have handled him quite well. He has developed his game massively in the last two years, and I will just be mindful of that and still trust my defence against him.”
And hope for some more peace and quiet before the series resumes.