It's nine months away from the World Test Championship final but South Africa are already playing what captain Dean Elgar has labelled "pretty much like a World Cup final," in the deciding Test against England.
With the series locked 1-1 and South Africa sitting second on the WTC points table, 12 behind Australia, the significance of this match has been so heightened that Elgar sees it as among the most crucial Tests this group of players has been involved in and he wants them to show that in their performance.
"It's the biggest Test so far in my captaincy period. I reckon it's the biggest. I think the players know that, they sense that," Elgar said. "We've got to play every game like it's your last. This is one of those where you have to play like it's your last. You have to empty the tank more times than none. You can't leave anything behind. You've got to leave everything on that field. It's huge. It's massive for us."
For Elgar, the importance of this Test is three-fold: 1. It's an opportunity for this squad to win a series in England for the first time after the golden generation did it in 2012 and 2008; 2. It will be a big step towards securing a WTC final spot and also feeling ready to play in a one-off red-ball final if they get there; 3. It's the second-last time South Africa will play a three-Test series (Australia at the end of the year is the last) before 2026 and some of the current group may not be playing then which means tie-breakers are not going to be a feature of the next cycle and should be relished now.
"I've never experienced a Test series win against England in 10 years of playing. It would be an unreal feeling for myself and massive for the younger guys in our change-room," Elgar said. "From a confidence point of view, it can kind of give us a little edge going into the potential World Test Championship final. We are in a very good spot. We know if we manage to win this game, we are back at No.1 which will be really nice. It's a very very big game for us."
There's rain around and an inevitability of interruptions, but Elgar dismissed thoughts that the hype could turn into a soggy draw, given the fast-forward way both teams approach their game. "There's definitely going to be a winner. With the styles of cricket we've been playing, there is definitely going to be a result," he said. "We can't control the weather but I am pretty confident there's going to be a victor and there will be someone that loses. Going into this Test one-all, it's pretty much like a World Cup final for us. That's the way I am viewing it. We are going in with a result in mind and we've got to give our best effort for that."
The teams come into this fixture after an 11-day break (lengthened from nine days because the second Test ended inside three) during which South Africa "did not pick a bat," Keegan Petersen said yesterday, or presumably any balls besides golf balls. They set up camp at the Belfry Resort, half-an-hour north-east of Birmingham and "played a bit of golf and we did a bit of go-carting as a team," Elgar said. Both were competitive. "We had a few days away from the game, out of the noise, the hustle and bustle and just trying to refocus and realign and remind ourselves why we are here. We are here to win a Test series."
To do that, South Africa have to bat better than they have done in this series, and probably better than they have since Elgar took over. They've only crossed 400 once in the 11 Tests since he was named permanent captain, against Bangladesh in Gqeberha, and in the five times they've scored 300-plus, it's the lower order that got them there. "Upfront it's pretty tough. We haven't executed the runs as of yet," Elgar said.
South Africa's top six - which is certain to have one change with Ryan Rickelton coming in for the injured Rassie van der Dussen, but could have two if Khaya Zondo replaces Aiden Markram - is under pressure and Elgar expects them to perform. "I understand how much top-order runs means for a team to set up a chance of victory. We've spoken at length about this topic. It's now time to walk the walk."
Elgar is fit to lead the charge as he brushed off a knock to the shoulder administered by his coach Mark Boucher on the toughest training session before the match, which South Africa routinely undertake a few days before the Test. "We have competition day, which is two or three days out from the Test. Our head coach was in the competition yesterday," he explained. "It's not the first blow I've taken. I've learnt how to get over those things."
Both he and South Africa have also "got over," the defeat in Manchester and won't be gloating about their win at Lord's as they isolate the Oval Test as one for the ages. "We know it (the Old Trafford loss) wasn't our proudest moment. You have to go through the grievance and jog on. You have to. You can't be pining for too long in Test cricket," Elgar said. "We are still pretty fresh. We've only had six days of Test cricket. With regards to freshness, we've got no excuse. With regards to hunger, we've got no excuse. Guys have to stand up and bring out their best game."