Dean Elgar set himself apart at Newlands on Thursday, and not only because his effort shone on the scorecard — his unbeaten 121 was almost half the 266/8 SA made on the first day of the third Test against Australia.
But, as it always is with a batsman who has built his game on character more than anything else, it was the way Elgar scored his runs that mattered.
He was hit on the helmet. He was hit on the forearm. He offered two chances — one went to hand, the other flew just past. And there, at stumps, forced three overs early by bad light, he was: defiant, determined and, most importantly, not out.
Elgar batted for almost six-and-a-half hours and faced 253 balls for his runs, which featured 17 fours and a six. The chances of him squeezing many more runs out of the innings on Friday do not seem good, even if he has the competent Kagiso Rabada for company with the willing Morné Morkel still in the shed.
Then it will be up to the bowlers to see what they can get out of a pitch on which the Australians’ most effective weapon was patience.
Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood began the match with a maiden each, and there had been only two scoring shots when Hazlewood had Aiden Markram caught at second slip by Steve Smith for duck in the fourth over. But, given a surface docile enough for off-spinner Nathan Lyon to be introduced in the ninth over, the bowlers struggled to challenge the batsmen for the rest of the first session even though they kept runs to a trickle.
In the fifth over after lunch Hashim Amla top-edged a hook to Hazlewood and was caught at fine leg for 31 to end a stand of 86. That proved to be the visitors’ only success of the second session as Elgar and AB de Villiers batted with discipline and purpose. Not that the Aussies did not have their opportunities.
Elgar was 53 when he was dropped by Nathan Lyon at point off Hazlewood, and 87 when he sliced a delivery from Mitchell Marsh past a diving Smith at second slip. He was struck on the helmet by Hazlewood and on the forearm by Starc by deliveries that climbed more than anyone thought they could.
But, beginning with De Villiers driving a catch to cover off Pat Cummins to go for 64 in the eight over after tea, SA lost six wickets for 37 runs.
Australia bowled with discipline throughout on a sound batting surface and they stuck to their guns by not taking the new ball. Cummins was at the heart of it all, taking 4/64 and grabbing all of his wickets in a rasping spell of eight overs in which he conceded 12 runs and bowled three maidens.
But the South Africans will know they helped their opponents and that they have handed them the advantage.