/ 13 January 2024

Proteas’ loss, as three duck early

South Africa V India 2nd Test
Over and out: The Proteas captain Dean Elgar at a post-match presentation at the Test between South Africa and India at Newlands in Cape Town on 4 January. (Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images)

Retirements in sport generally fall into two categories. There’s either the planned retirement (with accompanying hoopla and media fawning) or what we might facetiously call the “retirement of passion”. 

There have been a couple of the latter in local cricket in the past few weeks and, because both are backlit by good stories, they’re worth a second look.

Before the just-completed two Test series against India, Dean Elgar announced his retirement from the team he once captained. He had been playing for the Proteas, uninterrupted, since scoring a pair (two ducks) on debut against Australia in Perth in 2012. 

As often happens, Elgar’s announcement was liberating. He promptly went out and scored 185 in the Boxing Day Test against India at Centurion, an innings full of most un-Elgar-like flourish, with some beefy cover-driving and muscular pulling. He could have been 18 again.

Elgar, a compact left-hander, is usually cussed at the crease but here he was all sweet and easy. He could have been batting in the back of a convertible wearing a cheesy Hawaiian shirt, so laid-back and devil-may-care did he look. 

Surely there was a whiskey sour (with paper umbrella) somewhere close to hand? Neil Diamond was playing on the twin convertible speakers. He had to be. The occasion demanded it.    

Elgar might have been in his penultimate Test at Centurion but, at 36, he probably had a few more years of Test cricket left in him. 

Why, then, was he on his bike? He was on his bike because Shukri Conrad, the new coach of the Proteas’ Test side, took the captaincy away from him, a decision with which Elgar was mightily miffed.

In an exquisite irony, Temba Bavuma, the player who took over from Elgar as skipper, injured himself before the Centurion Test, so Elgar temporarily regained the captaincy he’d just lost. 

He captained the side again in the abbreviated second Test at Newlands, where (again) Bavuma was unable to fulfil his captaincy duties because of injury. 

Aside from the issue of Bavuma’s disruptive long-standing injury woes (he also missed two matches in the World Cup in Mumbai, India, in October) is the wisdom of Conrad pissing off Elgar by phasing him out. 

He’s the most experienced and most reliable of the current crop of South African Test batters by a country mile. He isn’t an AB de Villiers or a Hashim Amla, true, but let’s not condemn a litchi for not being a mango. 

Only two Test openers with more than 50 Tests to their names since readmission have better numbers — Gary Kirsten and Graeme Smith. 

Revealingly, Elgar’s numbers compare favourably with a very different opener — in style and comportment — of the past 30 years and that’s the perennial loskop Herschelle Gibbs. Both scored 14 Test centuries, Elgar in four Tests fewer than Gibbs’ 90, although Gibbs has a slightly better average. 

Although similar, the stats shouldn’t blind us to a single profound difference between the two. Gibbs was the lovably quick-on-the-draw cowboy in a posse of astonishingly gifted gunfighters, while Elgar is a hard-pressed deacon in a congregation of talented but wet-behind-the-ears choirboys. It’s chalk and cheese. Maybe it’s cheese and chalk. You decide.

Four days after Elgar’s final Test, former teammate Heinrich Klaasen announced his Test retirement. Despite some stellar performances in the World Cup in October, Klaasen remains South African cricket’s best-kept secret. 

That’s partly because he’s undemonstrative and partly because he’s played only four Tests. After having been brought into the side by Mark Boucher, Conrad didn’t appear to know what to do with him. 

Klaasen played in both home Tests against the West Indies in February and March but, by the time India arrived late last year, he was jettisoned in favour of Kyle Verreynne. 

South Africa V India 3rd One Day International
Heinrich Klaasen plays against India at Boland Park, in Paarl, on 21 December. (Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images)

Many felt Verreynne had been unfairly treated in being dropped by Boucher but that would have been of little concern to Klaasen, who admitted to having had a couple of “sleepless nights” as he wrestled with the decision.    

The irony here is that while most of us remember Klaasen for his white-ball antics (who can forget his scintillating 100 against England in the World Cup in October?), he admitted in his farewell that Test cricket is his favourite form of the game. 

You might not have thought it, but there it is. Pumping sixes to the grass banks at his home ground at Centurion evidently counts for less than a plucky 40 or 50 played with poise and savoir faire against a gun attack in a Test.

Elgar and Klaasen’s retirements from Test cricket come on the back of Quinton de Kock’s after the India World Cup. 

Were South African cricket bursting with riches, with players of the stature of, say, Ben Stokes and Pat Cummins, three such retirements would be difficult to bear. 

But, talent-wise, the game is at its lowest ebb in 20 years, so premature retirements of this kind are disruptive. And because they’re expressive of something deeper — in all three case, hurt — they also tell us what the players really think of the suits and the coaches.

Conrad appears to have been gung-ho in giving the captaincy to Bavuma but he also deserves some sympathy because he works for a pretty peculiar boss. His employers, Cricket South Africa (CSA), double-booked next month, scheduling an away two-Test tour to New Zealand at the same time as the second edition of the SA20. 

The Proteas’ best players, such as Kagiso Rabada and Aiden Markram, will be playing for their franchises in the SA20, so Conrad has been forced to pick a third-string team for the Kiwi Tests featuring seven uncapped players, including a 37-year-old leg-spinner from the Boland. 

The skipper, Neil Brand, a talented 23-year-old from the Titans who no one but his parents has heard of, somehow failed to strike the appropriate note when he told an Afrikaans weekend newspaper on Sunday: “We don’t pick ourselves.” 

All of this gives CSA a bad name, leading to accusations that the left hand doesn’t appear to know what the right is doing, a fateful state of affairs in cricket. 

It doesn’t end there. The Newlands Test against India that was Elgar’s last, was over in a day and a half, with 23 wickets lost on day one. 

CSA is nominally in charge of Newlands nowadays, having parachuted veteran administrator Corrie van Zyl into its offices to help clear up the mess that requires it to lend the Western Province Cricket Association R26 million over the next couple of months. 

That mess appears to have extended to the wicket, which was virtually unplayable. Cricket wickets are like gardens. They require tending; they need water and fertiliser. They need love. And bosses who know what they’re doing. 

It seems that the Newlands wicket didn’t receive very much of any of these things. 

All, though, is not lost. This is South Africa, and we are old hands at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The 50-over side did remarkably well in last year’s World Cup in India — far better than many thought they would. 

We’ve just been awarded the hosting rights to the under 19 World Cup later this month and South Africa will host the senior men’s World Cup in 2027. 

So all is not lost for cricket. As in all things in the beloved country, though, it might need to get worse before it gets appreciably better.