Was Elgar right, or will Bazball bounce back?

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By Dominic Hogan

Earlier in August South Africa’s Test captain Dean Elgar posed the then-unthinkable idea that ‘Bazball’ might not quite be the sustainable, all-conquering brand of cricket that England fans had hoped for following four enthralling victories this summer.  

But a week later the home side once again found themselves tumbling unceremoniously to an eerily reminiscent innings defeat inside three days at Lords, as Elgar’s premonition turned from over-confident braggadocio to completely justified fact. 

After a limp 165 in the first innings – hoisted for the most part by a brave, if not entirely fluid, 73 from Ollie Pope – England’s far from quick pace attack reverted to the ‘bang it in short for the tail’ tactics of an era that we had all hoped gone forever, allowing the visitors to lift their own score to a deceptively healthy-looking 326.  

And it only got worse for the hosts, who stuttered and staggered to 149 on day three, finishing 12 short of the Proteas, who sealed an emphatic and sobering statement win. Apparently, England are not quite as impressive setting a score as they are chasing one down.  

The talk will naturally immediately centre on Zak Crawley’s place in the side, how desperately this group is missing Jofra Archer’s pace and variety, and of course the brand of cricket Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum want to play. And yes, a crumbly top-order provided little resistance, but it was thoroughly deserved by the visitors.  

England were poor. Very poor. But South Africa were prodigious with the ball, led of course by Kagiso Rabada, the newest inductee to the famed honour boards at the home of cricket. The 27-year-old appeared to be possessed by the spirit of Dale Steyn in his prime, as he had batters squirming and contorting to his tune like a snake-charmer throughout a ferocious first innings that saw him take 5-52, proving on multiple occasions why he has the best strike rate of any bowler to reach 100 wickets (40.2). 

But it was not just a one-man show, and Rabada was supported by Anrich Nortje unleashing 92mph thunderbolts one after the other, and Lungo Ngidi hitting a line and length with the prodigious consistency and accuracy of an assassin, all while Marco Jansen extracted swing from the Lords wicket that one Jimmy Anderson would be proud of.  

The game was won with the ball, and Elgar’s batters did not need to do anything special. A 73 from Sarel Erwee and a few 40-odd scores proved to be insurmountable across two innings for the in-form hosts, who in spite of a wonder-catch from Stuart Broad let slip a complacent 72 runs as England apparently once again refused to try and hit the top of off stump of anyone batting below seven in the order. 

A harsh reminder of the work that still needs to be done in the lower-order and proof that England cannot simply rely on Joe Root or Jonny Bairstow to just get a ton and bail everyone out every innings.  

England will likely bounce back by the time the sides meet again in Manchester on tomorrow. We know that McCullum’s side are set in their way of playing now that the cool-as-a-cucumber former New Zealand talisman has removed all fear of getting out, but the question that needs answering is where can this South Africa side go? 

In short – wherever they want. On paper, they look to be comprised of several well-oiled parts working in tandem to brutal effect. They are already blessed with a four-pronged pace attack with an average age of just under 26 that has proven itself in series against England, India and New Zealand. There is a solidity to the opening partnership of Elgar and Sarel Erwee – who has a 100 and a 50 in his first five games – after they survived a combined 347 minutes out in the middle on Friday.  

The big worry for Elgar will be the middle order. Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen, both highly-skilled white ball punishers, are averaging 21.25 and 29.83 respectively under Elgar’s stewardship, and it is painfully clear that the Proteas are missing Temba Bavuma who is out with an elbow injury, but has blossomed under Elgar.  

But with Keegen Petersen’s emergence of late, a return for Bavuma would make a world of difference to that batting line-up and you wouldn’t put it past them to end June 2023 still on top of the World Test Championships, and a three Test series starting in December should be a litmus test of what’s to come for the Proteas.   

The quality they hold within their ranks moving forward has been clearly overlooked by an ICC schedule that clearly favours England, India and Australia, with South Africa only playing 33 tests from December until summer 2027, compared to England’s 43, with no five-Test series in the calendar.  

But for now they must continue to show the world that they deserve better respect by extending their run of eight wins in 10 Tests, seeing off what will surely be a vengeful England putting the lives of any beverage below row Z in danger.  

 We have spent the last few months hailing England for their stunning displays – and we have earned the right to after a torrid end to Chris Silverwood’s reign – but for now let’s give Mark Boucher’s Proteas the plaudits they have earned.

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