Dean Elgar like you’ve never seen him before

The Proteas’ opening batsman has been typecast as a Test cricketer only, but he and those who have played with him know that Elgar has what it takes to be a star in white-ball cricket.

Dogged. Resilient. Defiant. As opposed to dainty, ebullient and delightful. For reasons that he and those around him fail to quite understand, South Africa’s top-order Test batting leader has been typecast into the role of the boring uncle at Christmas.

No bright jumpers, no wild hairstyles, tattoos or mid-life crisis masquerading as a flashy sports car. No, the word flash supposedly doesn’t exist in sentences that also contain the words Dean Elgar. 

And yet, on 17 November, the left-hander was beaming brightly in his Tshwane Spartans kit, AB de Villiers in tow. Against the Paarl Rocks in the Mzansi Super League (MSL), Elgar’s 88 not out from 60 balls was that splash of panache with which many still do not associate him. He repeated the delightful dose with another half-century against the Durban Heat, before Highveld showers turned the match into a damp squib.

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“Those shots have always been there. I’ve always had them and played them. But I’m also not going to run down the wicket and hit a bowler over cover in a Test match,” he said dryly.

It remains one of the most peculiar practices in South African cricket, but players are still stereotyped based on how they are seen playing on the telly. Those who know the 32-year-old from Welkom in the Free State a bit better are just as baffled by the one-dimensional label with which he has been saddled. Elgar’s Test opening partner, Aiden Markram, is also a stablemate at the Titans. He knows all too well just what Elgar is capable of, especially against the white ball.

Out of the pigeonhole

“There was a knock he played in the Momentum One Day Cup final last year, where he just came in at four and smashed 60-odd off about 40 balls. We all know what he is capable of, and it is a real pity that he hasn’t had a chance to prove it at the highest level,” Markram lamented.

“I think he is a lot of the things you are looking for in a No. 4-type batsman in ODI [one-day international] cricket. Unfortunately, he has been pigeonholed to an extent, which I think is very unfair.”

Given all the options that have been tried in the South African top order, it is staggering that Elgar has not had his chance to prove his worth. His numbers in county cricket, where he has scored heavily for Somerset and Surrey, are a further testament to his abilities.

And yet…

For Elgar, what further honours may come in international cricket is not the priority now. Over the next month, his only goal is getting the Spartans as far as possible in the second edition of the MSL. 

“We’ve got a good balance this year, and we have had some really good experience come into the side. Our attack is also learning all the time, so I think there is great balance all round,” he said after the round-robin victory over the Rocks.

He notes that this is a competition the Spartans feel they have a good chance of landing, especially after last year’s failure to launch. They had to look on as their neighbouring Jozi Stars went all the way.

“It’s an important competition, and one that is growing all the time. It is obviously impossible to compare it to the Big Bash [Australian league] or the IPL [Indian Premier League], but we can definitely feel the improvement this year,” he said.

“You look at the calibre of internationals who came out to play, and then the improving standard. It definitely is a tournament that can continue to grow, and we would love to be in a position to win it.”

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Within that excellent Spartans collective, Elgar looks content. His role allows the more expressive types to come in and charge, knowing that he is well set on the other end. But he is also more than capable of manipulating the field and scoring at will.

Against the Paarl Rocks, there were particular shots that highlighted his reading of the game, including one smite to vacant square leg off a charging Hardus Viljoen. And the manner in which he toyed with Tabraiz Shamsi, who was getting good turn out of the Paarl surface. Elgar is a lot more than a one-trick pony in Test clothing.

Continued ODI snub 

Those who know his white-ball tendencies, especially on the county scene, remain baffled as to why he has never had a genuine look-in when it comes to the Proteas ODI outfit.

“I don’t worry about anything other than what’s right in front of me,” Elgar said. “My priority is the Spartans right now, and any other worries about national team or whatever will sort itself out. The next seven games with the Spartans are all that matters.”

Markram, who knows Elgar better than most, said he is one of the most intense characters in the team. 

“Deano is all in. There are no grey areas with him. He is also one of the most brutally honest people in the team. If you ask him something, he will call it as it is. There are no soft calls with Deano,” Markram warned. “People on the outside might not see that, but you go to Dean when you want a really honest perspective.”

Elgar certainly doesn’t mince his words in press conferences, and has taken the baton from Dale Steyn in that sense. If you want a question answered properly within the Proteas, ask Elgar. Out in the middle, he wears his concentration and intensity bullishly on his face, particularly in Test cricket.  Every ball is a battle, another chance to get one over the bowlers.

“He takes it as a source of pride when the batting unit does well. So it hits him hard when we don’t perform, because he has taken it upon himself to be a leader within that unit,” Markram said. 

During the Indian tour in October, Elgar provided one of the few bright spots for batting, with a remarkable century in the first Test. More than anything, he showed he could take the fight to India’s excellent spin attack, combining quick feet with fast hands.

“I’ve had great battles with [Ravi] Ashwin before, and he’s won some. Today I got the better of him, but that is what Test cricket is about,” Elgar said at the time.

He also relished taking the crowd out of the equation for a session, as he and Quinton de Kock held sway in Visakhapatnam. “I could hear the silence,” he said. “We could feel we were on top for that session, but winning in India is about putting a few of those sessions together.” 

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While the Indian tour still jolts, and England’s visit is rapidly approaching, Elgar knows that the next month is about this Twenty20 competition. The next few weeks are solely devoted to winning a competition that Elgar feels strongly about. 

“It’s very important for South African cricket, and it is great to be a part of.”

Key to Tshwane’s Spartans

He is in a good place, one that has been made simpler by a clarity of role for him in the Spartans.

Elgar is not concerned with being fashionable or flashy or any of the other adjectives that the cool kids use. But he is also not afraid to laugh at himself. Within the Proteas setup, he is a relentless joker off the field.

In the inaugural season of the MSL, he was chosen by the Spartans to appear in a comical re-enactment of the hit movie 300, about Spartan warriors spoiling for battle. “This is Tshwane!” he roars into a camera, to announce the arrival of the Spartans to the battlefield.

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The ribbing in the changing room lingered for a while, but Elgar took it in the right spirit. It’s part of the job, sometimes. His real job, however, is to get the bit on run-scoring done, in the most efficient way possible. How other people see him is, quite frankly, no longer his business.

By Spartan law, his bat will do the talking.

Enigmatic. Engaging. Enlightening. This is Elgar.

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