TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
SOME centuries are shaped by their circumstances, others by the talent and skill of the centurion, and still others by the quality of the opposition.
Dean Elgar’s 129 against Sri Lanka at Newlands on Monday was none of the above.
It was, instead, carved out of circumstances that should never have yielded an innings of such quality, scored with just as much, if not more, cussedness and determination than talent and skill, and against a tide of classy bowling.
The South Africans should thank their gods for Elgar’s triumph of substance over style.
It took them to 297/6 at stumps on the first day of the second test, which is a long way from the 66/3 they were two overs before lunch.
They lost Stephen Cook to the fourth ball of the match and without a run on the board, and Hashim Amla and JP Duminy six balls apart.
Suranga Lakmal did for Cook with an out-swinger that stole a kiss from the outside edge on its way to wicketkeeper Kusal Mendis.
Lahiru Kumara, a 19-year-old fast bowler playing his third test, and his first not against Zimbabwe, removed Amla with an inswinger that would have made lesser players look far more inept as it crashed into the stumps.
Then he and had Duminy taken behind with a legside delivery that was gloved and, somehow, caught by a tumbling Mendis.
Elgar had faced 62 balls at that point, enough to tell him he would need to face many more if South Africa were to make a fist of things.
Angelo Mathews had won the toss and refused to bat on a grassy, green pitch that lurked under scudding clouds.
Mathews’ bowlers proved their captain’s decision correct by finding their line and length early in the piece and, along with that, plenty of swing and seam movement.
Elgar stood firm through all that, and even though conditions eased once the sun started dipping towards Table Mountain he knew he could never trust the ball to be where he thought it was when it reached his bat.
Amla met the challenge posed by all that and helped Elgar add 66, and Faf du Plessis stuck around long enough to share 76.
Temba Bavuma stayed for only half-an-hour, but happily for South Africa Quinton de Kock was made of more stubborn stuff.
He and Elgar seemed set to stand tall all the way to stumps.
But in the sixth over before the close and with the partnership worth 103 Elgar feathered the new ball, bowled by Suranga Lakmal, to Mendis.
As Elgar walked off, with the sun and the mountain at his back and throaty appreciation for his feat all around, he slowly removed his helmet and, eventually, raised his bat with a weariness that could be felt from hundreds of metres away.
He had batted for six hours, faced 230 balls and hit 15 fours.
As impressive as all that sounds, watching him do it was much more so – because there’s no contest when statistics meet a special performance, and special this one was.
But cricket is a game of numbers, and the most important of them for the home side going into the second day’s play is that De Kock is 68 not out.
Might Kyle Abbott, who was promoted to No. 8 and responded with a punchy 16 not out, and Vernon Philander help De Kock ensure Elgar is not South Africa’s only centurion?
Stranger things have happened.
And as recently as Monday.