Not since South Africa took the Test mace from England in 2012, have they faced a greater challenge than the upcoming Cape Town Test. Then, they had a one-nil lead going into the third Test but only an outright victory would be enough to topple the world’s No.1 side. Now, they are in a similar situation. There’s not just the Freedom Trophy to be won but plenty of pride and World Test Championship points that South Africa are playing for, and that makes the third Test against India as important as games of cricket can get.
“This Test match is the biggest we’ve had in 10 or 15 years,” Dean Elgar, South Africa’s Test captain said. “Winning this series 2-1 would be huge. Beating the world No.1 team, even though it is in your back garden is going to bespeak massive amounts for our playing group going forward and the Proteas badge.”
But that’s not the only reason the Newlands match is so significant.
It has also been ten summers since South Africa were locked 1-1 in a home series, and won. Elgar remembers because he was there. Sort of.
Elgar was part of the ODI squad that played five matches against Sri Lanka in the 2011-12 season, after the Test series which South Africa won 2-1. During that series, Sri Lanka recorded their first Test win in South Africa. Eight years later, they went on to become the first subcontinent team to win a series here.
Elgar was not even being considered for the Test side at that stage and was picked to play white-ball cricket but didn’t feature because he had a serious knee injury. He debuted in ODIs eight months later, and in Tests at the end of 2012. By then, the South African Test team was the best in the world. Since then they’ve tumbled as low as seventh, and Elgar has seen it all. So it’s no exaggeration when he says that victory in the third Test against India would be particularly special to him.
“At the Wanderers, the minute we brought the intensity, it seemed to fluster the Indians quite a lot and that can play in our favour.”
“It would be the biggest Test win in my playing career so far, especially with the leadership and captaincy now and having a bit more influence with regards to our players group,” Elgar said. “And from a players point of view, it would be massive for us. We’ve put in so much hard work over the last few months, and we’ve actually been playing pretty good cricket up until now but we’ve not had a lot of things go our way. You need some momentum on your side. We’ve been doing everything right. We’ve been ticking the boxes as best as we can.”
South Africa have only lost one series in their last six across all formats and five matches in their last 20, including at the T20 World Cup. Despite the administrative upheaval, which will involve an investigation into the conduct of director of cricket Graeme Smith and men’s national head coach Mark Boucher in relation to racial discrimination, they have managed to find some of the big-match temperament that was thought to have left with the big-name retirements.
At the T20 World Cup, South Africa reeled off four consecutive wins to miss out on the semi-finals on net run rate. In Johannesburg last week, they hunted down their highest-successful target at the Wanderers and showed the ability to put a quality opposition under real pressure. Elgar wants them to keep that up.
“Test cricket demands a high level of intensity and we have to maintain that over five days. It’s not always possible to maintain that over five days but you have to be pretty consistent with regards to implementing the intensity throughout,” he said. “At the Wanderers, the minute we brought the intensity, it seemed to fluster the Indians quite a lot and that can play in our favour. It would be silly of us not to try and replicate that or even bring more intensity into the next game.”
Can they do it? Elgar is cautiously optimistic. “We’ve started showing good signs and I hope we build on it,” he said. “We have by no means reached our ability with regards to performance, especially from a batting point of view but we’ve got good things coming our way.”
Cape Town is the litmus test for how true that is. South Africa will find sympathy if they compete well and still come out second-best against India but they’ll touch glory if the opposite happens. And that’s what Elgar is hoping for.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent