The enigma of Dean Elgar

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The stage was set. 240 runs to defend and claim a series victory for the first time ever on South African soil. India had done an almost similar job, on an almost similar pitch, on exactly the same ground four years ago. There was every reason to believe that history would repeat itself. But if the last year or so of Test cricket has taught us anything, it’s that fortresses aren’t safe anymore. And that memo seemed to have reached Dean Elgar, who led his troops from the front and handed India their first Test defeat at the venue, setting the series up for a cracking finale.

Elgar is not a pretty batter to the eyes (which, as a left hander, aesthetically pleasant in general, is difficult to be to be honest). He is not flamboyant or flashy. He doesn’t move his front foot much. His range is limited. Everyone knows all that. And yet, he keeps scoring runs, delivering, when no one expects him to. When this chase of 240 began for South Africa, not many would have expected that they would chase it down with seven wickets remaining. And even lesser number of people would have expected Dean Elgar to lead them to it and finish on 96 not out, which is now his 2nd highest 4th innings score ever.

Elgar

Elgar also has the 2nd highest average in the 4th innings for an opener (min 10 Tests) and highest 4th innings average for an opener at home (min 5 Tests) since his debut

Elgar’s methods

Elgar has a bottom hand dominated grip and his setup is based on looking to score almost everything through the on-side.

Elgar setup facing Shami from round the wicket

He stands on off stump when facing right arm pacers from round the wicket and shuffles further outside so much so that his leg stump is visible by the time he makes contact with the ball. His head ends up at around the 4th stump and that allows him to leave anything just outside his eyeline. Anything that ends up straight is either defended or flicked or nudged away towards square leg or fine leg for runs.

Elgar setup facing Shardul from over the wicket

His starting position is pretty similar when facing right arm pacers from over the wicket as well, with the difference being that he doesn’t end up shuffling outside off from this angle. He stands with his front leg open and waits for the ball to be on the pads to flick it away.

In this series, he has scored 202 runs so far at an average of 67.33, and 57.43% of those runs have come on the leg side.

His most productive shots in both the innings where he crossed 50, were the flick shot, which accounted for 36.73% of his runs in the 2nd innings in Johannesburg and 48.05% of his runs in the 2nd innings in Centurion.

This highlights how obvious and prominent his methods are. And the first thought of any fielding side on seeing these numbers and his game would be that this method can be broken down with a well-defined plan. Yet, India have failed to break it down twice in this series now.

India’s plans for Elgar

India seemed to have a two-pronged plan for Elgar. While Shardul Thakur and Mohammad Siraj mostly bowled over the wicket, trying to take it across from him, Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah preferred angling it in towards the stumps from round the wicket.

While Siraj (in the first innings before getting injured) and Shardul troubled him considerably from over the wicket, Shami and Bumrah did not beat his bat as often. And given his set up, it makes sense. The logic behind angling it in from round the wicket and targeting his stumps was understandable, given he got trapped in front in the 2nd innings in Centurion from that angle. But with that plan of attack, India were playing into his strengths and hoping that he would commit a mistake there.

The alternative approach, used by Shardul and Siraj, had much more merit in it. Both were consistently bowling wobbled seam deliveries from over the wicket, pitching it on the stumps at almost a drivable length from a relatively wide of the crease angle, and cutting it away, only for Elgar to look to drive and get beaten. There were at least 2 instances in the game of him getting beaten multiple times in an over from that angle playing the exact same shot to the exact same delivery.

The reason why he kept playing and missing those balls was because his front foot never came forward or went across. He would just use his hands to look to drive through the line as you can see in the stills below.

Shardul beating Elgar from over the wicket.

Bumrah drawing an edge from over the wicket.

Elgar consistently playing and missing those deliveries gave the feel of a candidate being consistently asked technical questions in an interview for which he is not prepared. That should have been a hint for the interviewer to keep pestering him on the same topics, but India seemed generous. Instead of testing how well he could mask his weakness, they focused on testing how strong his strengths were, and failed.

But that is what Elgar does to you. On first glance, his weaknesses look aplenty and apparent. But he is smart. And patient. He makes you come to him instead of striking first. He doesn’t play the big booming cover drive which is the trademark of many a top order left handed batter. He defends, and nudges, and flicks. You feel like you’re on top, having beaten him and hit him on the body several times. But when you look up at the scoreboard, you come to the crude shock that he is nearing fifty, and wonder where he got those runs from. That right there is the enigma of Dean Elgar.