Dean Elgar sits on the steps of the Maritzburg Oval pavilion in his stained Titans whites, his feet breathing Midlands air after another solid day at the office.
Two hours before, Elgar had been given a standing ovation by the sprinkling of supporters who turned up to watch on a Tuesday morning, after he had notched a magnificent 237 not out against the Dolphins.
That double century - his highest score in the Sunfoil Series - was the latest item on a list of Elgar specials in 2017. Add it to five Test centuries around the world, and a spell so rich in runs and responsibility at Somerset that they would have him back tomorrow, and you get a sense that this is a man in his cricketing prime.
“It’s been a good year. I have looked to keep things simple, on and off the field. That approach has helped, but this season is only just beginning. There are some big Tests coming against India and Australia, and we have to be ready for those,” Elgar points out.
There is no lingering on past conquests or challenges. The game has taught him that it is better to look only at the next ball than to wallow in contemplation of the previous delivery. It is a great outlook, be it in opening the batting, or just in everyday life.
What has stood out in this golden harvest by the slightly built left-hander has not just been the numbers he has put up. Just as impressive has been his ability to compartmentalise, to worry about his own game, even as the person he walks to the middle with has changed as often as the hotels he has inhabited this year.
Opening batsmen, much like bowling pairs, operate on rhythm and repetition. In the past year, Elgar has often looked like a man on a blind date TV show, constantly looking for the one, only for a decisive flaw to pop up and derail the bromance.
“You have to focus on your game. It’s not easy opening the batting, especially at the start of your career. It was a big challenge for me too, and I know that I have to step up to make things a bit easier for my partner.”
His latest dance partner is Aiden Markram, a man he also plays with in Pretoria. They have made a promising start together, but Elgar knows that stormier seas are on the horizon.
“India and Australia will be a big challenge, especially for a young player who is still finding his way in Test cricket. As the more experienced player, I know that I will have to step up, and try to make it a bit easier for Aiden.”
Elgar is also quick to point out that he and Markram have only batted together a handful of times, despite playing for the same franchise. Without quite saying it, he is quietly warning against unrealistic expectations. After all, he knows better than most how things can change at the top of the order.
That he has still managed to be South Africa’s standout batsman, in a testing year of five-day fare, speaks volumes about Elgar’s mental strength. Part of that steeliness, he explains, has come about from his move from Bloemfontein to Pretoria. “From a cricket point of view, you are just competing with a lot more people. You look at the number of Proteas in the Titans squad, and that tells you that you have to be on your toes and perform.
“Moving to a bigger city has also made me become a lot more streetwise. You just have to be sharper, because things happen a lot quicker. I think that has helped my game.” The statistics give plenty of “street cred” to Elgar’s theory, because his stock has swelled to the portfolio of senior player in the Proteas.
When Faf du Plessis was absent at Lord’s, it was Elgar who was handed the captaincy. That was a personal highlight even if the result didn’t go according to plan.
Indeed, it has been a year of highlights, but the 30-year-old is not one for basking in the reflective glow. He mentions in passing that it has been five years since he took an actual break, away from new balls and late swing, and standing in the slips. “My last holiday was at Umhlanga Sands. That was five years ago, and I have been playing and touring ever since.”
It isn’t a complaint - far from it. But it is a reminder of the level of sacrifice those at the top of their game have to put in. Even though he is literally at the top of the Test line-up, Elgar still has ambitions that he would like to realise before the dust settles on a career that has wound its way from Welkom, to Bloemfontein, to Pretoria, a golden summer in Taunton and countless Test venues around the globe.
All that has been an honour, but it is not quite enough, however. High on the Elgar agenda is breaking into the Proteas’ one-day plans.
“It is a huge goal of mine. I want to play white-ball cricket for my country, and I think I have almost become stereotyped as a Test player. I think I have shown, when I have played for the Titans and Somerset, that I can adapt my game according to the format,” he argues.
It is a sore point, and one he is not ready to relinquish. The schedule often doesn’t allow him to press that point home, but he isn't giving up. “I want to play, and I've worked hard on my game, my bowling too."
Sitting on 237 not out, with a sack full of runs this year, some cricketers may be quite content with their lot. Not Dean Elgar. And it is that relentless appetite which has turned him into the rock upon which the Proteas’ scoring foundations are now built on.@whamzam17