Elgar is a straight-laced, hard-nosed cricketer almost from another era, stern and stoic like a man who’s never been hugged, whose grafting method could not be more at odds with England’s showboating summer. Where Stokes sees a duty to entertain, Elgar sees only duty. England and South Africa meet on Wednesday at Lord’s for the first of a three-Test series, and if the pre-match discourse offers a glimpse of what’s to come, it’s going to be a confrontational, combustible affair.
“I’ve got absolutely no interest in the style they’ve played,” Elgar said this week of England’s transformation under new coach Brendon McCullum, before going on to discuss it in some detail. Elgar predicted England will be left with “egg on their faces” by their gung-ho approach and dared Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root and co to take on South Africa’s formidable bowling attack.
Brooding fast bowler Anrich Nortje was equally unimpressed by the line of questioning. “We’re here to play Test cricket,” he said bluntly when asked about facing England’s fearless style. How will you deal with Bazball? “I don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re talking a totally different language.”
In fairness to South Africa, the topic must be getting a little tedious. The ‘B’ buzzword has been thrown at them relentlessly in recent days and is said to have been banned from the Proteas dressing room. But it will be impossible to ignore over the coming weeks on the field and, for better or worse, England’s front-foot tactics will inevitably shape the series.
South Africa were given a taste of what may be in store in their warm-up game against the England Lions who played in much the same way as the first XI, swatting the tourists aside to win by an innings and 56 runs in Canterbury. The Lions hit a blistering 672 all out at 5.5 runs per over, with centuries by Harry Brook (140) and Ben Duckett (145), albeit against an understrength South African side that should be reinforced by the pace trio of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Nortje at Lord’s. Asked what his team gained from the game, South Africa coach Mark Boucher replied: “We learnt how to fetch the ball.”
Yet his team have quietly ascended to the top of the Test Championship table under Elgar’s leadership, with seven wins from his nine games in charge, and are set to play Australia in next year’s final. While they look a touch light with the bat South Africa have real firepower with the ball, but James Anderson insists the hosts do not need to change the mentality that inspired a series whitewash over New Zealand.
“We now know we’ve got the ability to chase anything down and we’ve got the ability to take wickets in any conditions,” Anderson said. “If we keep playing with that entertaining sort of mindset and also be smart with it as well… I think that’s the biggest learner from the last four Tests we’ve played, that we can be smarter at times. I think if we add that into our already entertaining mindset and be proactive and aggressive in the nature we play I think we can keep doing it.”
Anderson, who turned 40 last month, cannot wait to get going. “I’ve been itching to get back in the dressing room to be honest. Those four Tests were incredible. Obviously what we did on the field was great, but the energy in the dressing room was brilliant. I felt as happy as I have done in an England dressing room for a number of years, so the last five weeks I’ve just been itching to get back in there.”
Anderson and Stuart Broad are set to lead England’s bowling attack once more alongside Matthew Potts, who excelled against New Zealand. Ben Foakes is back keeping wicket after Covid, while struggling opener Zak Crawley has retained his place over the in-form Brook.
South Africa must decide how to replace the injured Temba Bavuma in the middle order and whether to pick one or both of their front-line spinners. Bavuma leaves a gaping hole as the only South African other than Elgar inside the batting world rankings’ top 40, and is likely to be replaced by either Khaya Zondo or Aiden Markram, who both scored some useful warm-up runs.
The advantage of Markram is his part-time off-spin, making him the closest thing to an all-rounder in the side. His selection might then leave a straight choice between the left-arm spin of white-ball captain Keshav Maharaj or the off-break of Simon Harmer. Harmer’s experience playing in English conditions for Essex may tip the scales in his favour, particularly given the pumping Maharaj received from the Lions this week where he shipped 169 runs at nearly eight an over.
They will complement a seam attack full of pace and bounce hoping to capitalise on the bone-dry English summer. Rabada will lead the assault, though an ankle injury will see his overs carefully managed, and his workload this series will be shared with the pacey Nortje, Ngidi and the towering arm of Marco Jansen, who at 2.06m (6ft 8in) lays claim to being the tallest ever South Africa Test cricketer.
The heatwave is finally loosening its grip on the UK and the match may well be disrupted by rain showers. Humidity and cloud might normally impact England’s thoughts and force a tweak of the dial from reward to risk, but neither side are in the business of compromise, and nothing is going to take the heat out of this contest. After several weeks of white-ball cricket in its various guises, Test cricket is back, and these days a bang is almost guaranteed.
England XI: Lees, Crawley, Pope, Root, Bairstow, Stokes (c), Foakes (wk), Broad, Potts, Leach, Anderson.