While South Africa were preparing for Dean Elgar’s final Test, his replacement – as both opening batter and captain – was being called up. Literally.
“It was the morning of the first day of the Test in Cape Town that Shuks (Shukri Conrad, Test coach) called me and said, “You are in the team and you are also going to be captain,” Neil Brand said in Johannesburg ahead of the squad’s departure to New Zealand. “Obviously going over to New Zealand, making your debut and captaining is quite interesting and probably quite rare. I am obviously delighted.”
Brand finds himself in this unique position both because the majority of South Africa’s first-choice players are unavailable as they fulfil obligations at the SA20 and because Elgar retired after the Newlands Test. Had he not retired, Elgar, who does not have commitments with any T20 franchise, could have led the team he captained 18 times between 2017 and 2024 in New Zealand and added much-needed experience to their ranks.
Instead, Brand, his opening partner at Titans in the domestic circuit, will lead a squad that includes eight uncapped players, in New Zealand and will have to front up against the new ball as well.
“Initially you are like – ‘Wow, is this actually happening,’ and then you realise it’s going to become a thing,” Brand said, when asked to describe how he felt. “This tour has been spoken about a lot in the media. People have written us off but we are still wearing the Proteas badge. We are desperate to come back with something.”
Inexperience aside, South Africa’s touring party will also be facing New Zealand who have not lost a home Test series since March 2017.
“There’s always pressure, but there’s also a lot of pride that comes with wearing this shirt. We don’t want to let our country down. We want to perform.”
He pointed to the experience at the level in his group at domestic level as an example. “This team has 96 games per player as an average. That’s a lot of first-class cricket in the group,” he said. “There’s a lot of experience in terms of domestic cricket and that has to count for something. There’s not a lot of Test matches but you’ve still got to see it as a positive. I don’t think anyone has any baggage.”
“I am someone that will visualise and see how people are doing things. I have been in the Titans for five years now with some amazing captains and I am a very deep thinker about the game so I am always analysing their decision making.”
Also included in South Africa’s squad are seamer Dane Paterson and spinner Dane Piedt, who have played 271 first-class games and taken 990 wickets between them and Keegan Petersen, a 12-Test capped batter, who has played 130 first-class games and is 112 first-class runs away from 8000. Those are not numbers to scoff at, albeit they are not numbers at the highest level. Brand himself has played 51 first-class games, has almost 3000 runs and averages a shade under 40. In the last two seasons, he has been among the top-ten run-scorers in the domestic first-class competition and has learnt to score in difficult home conditions.
“Playing at the (Centurion-based) Titans makes you tough, especially opening the batting,” he said. “Over the last few years batting with Dean, I have learnt how to constantly score runs in tough situations.”
He has also consulted with Elgar on captaincy, but, with 18 matches under his belt as a first-class leader, wants to establish his own identity. “I have spoken to Dean and Albie Morkel but I don’t want to speak to too many people and change the way I captain,” he said. “I am not really someone that will ask questions. I am someone that will visualise and see how people are doing things. I have been in the Titans for five years now with some amazing captains and I am a very deep thinker about the game so I am always analysing their decision making.”
Brand was in charge of the South African A side that beat West Indies A 2-1 in an unofficial Test series late last year, where he got to know most of the squad that he will take to New Zealand. “I have to give Shuks [Conrad] a lot of credit for planning that A series. I am the only player from the Titans, so going into that series, I was captain and I didn’t know anyone personally,” he said. “After those three games, our team cohesion was awesome. We are going to go out there and give it our best shot. It’s good going to New Zealand as underdogs. We are just using that as motivation.”
There is also some personal incentive for Brand in New Zealand. While it’s likely Temba Bavuma will be back to lead the side later in the year, Elgar’s retirement means there will be a vacancy at the top of the order and Brand could use this series to make a case to fill it. “Deep down I do see it like that but there are a lot of good openers around the country at the moment,” he said. “Eddie Moore will also be desperate to stake a claim for the Test side. But this is the ultimate for me. Test cricket is the ultimate.”
South Africa are giving themselves over two weeks to acclimatise in New Zealand before the first Test on February 4.