Proteas head coach Shukri Conrad was rewarded for an investment in new blood. But discarding Dean Elgar represents a huge risk, writes RYAN VREDE.
The Proteas vanquished India in Centurion within three days, thanks to a clutch of gifted rookies, and the immense efforts of a veteran, Elgar.
The former group, led by debutants Nandre Burger with the ball and David Bedingham with the bat, is a testament to the depth of talent available in South African cricket.
Notably, they are 28 and 29 years old respectively, having accumulated nearly 130 first-class matches combined. It speaks to the value of an extended stint in domestic cricket. Bedingham, in particular, exhibited technique and temperament that made him look comfortable in elevated company.
Of the other newbies, Tony de Zorzi has shown enough competency in his short Test career to suggest he deserves investment. Kyle Verreynne and Keegan Petersen have exhibited their talent in the past, but they need consistency.
And consistency defines Elgar’s career, which will end at Newlands. The 36-year-old was stripped of the captaincy earlier this year, in a move that put the writing on the wall. In recent discussions with Conrad, it became clear that he wasn’t in the long-term thinking, prompting Elgar to announce his retirement in the build-up to the India Test series.
Elgar’s form in 2023 is strong. He averages 47, with a century and half-century, in seven innings. His 185 at Centurion was match-defining and put his side in a position that India ultimately could not overturn.
It was an innings characterised by the type of grit that has become synonymous with Elgar, and once established at the crease, he pounced on anything that missed its line or length. His dismissal – a faint deflection off his glove down caught by the wicketkeeper the leg side – was unfortunate. His initial defiance had evolved into dominance. A double hundred felt inevitable.
Ultimately those 15 runs didn’t matter to the outcome, but Elgar provided a timely reminder of his enduring class and value at the top of the order.
It raised questions about his successor. Most reports suggest that SA A opener Neil Brand (27) will get an opportunity, to partner Aiden Markram. Brand, however, has had a poor domestic season, averaging just 22 across eight innings. He was also inconsistent in the recent three-Test series against the West Indies A, averaging just 30 across six innings.
The leading opener in domestic cricket is KZN Inland’s Ben Compton. The left-hander shares Elgar’s ability to dig in when conditions are challenging and is a fine strokemaker once he gets going. He is a late bloomer, and at 29 is enjoying the best run of his career, after years of toiling in England. He is not on the selection radar but may force himself into the conversation if his form sustains.
EP Warriors opener Jordan Hermann has excelled in domestic cricket this season, banking 435 runs at an average of 54. The KZN Dolphins’ Tshepang Dithole is another who has impressed, scoring 418 runs at 52. Hermann, 22, and just 17 first-class matches into his red-ball career looks like a high-potential player, but Conrad is more likely to back experienced first-class players who’ve exhibited consistency domestically.
So there are candidates to replace Elgar, but Conrad, having decided to move on from the 85-Test veteran, is fully aware that his replacement can’t have a prolonged adjustment period to Test cricket, given the relative inexperience of the batters in the top six.
I’ve liked that Conrad has been true to his selection convictions, and to date, there have been returns on his investments. This, however, is his biggest dice roll yet.
The question in this context is always about timing. When is the right time to let an established veteran go? The best coaches in sports get this right more than they do wrong. Time will reveal where Conrad ranks in this regard.
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