Faf du Plessis had to do it in 2016, when AB de Villiers went on sabbatical, and injuries kept Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel out of significant parts of the season. Quinton de Kock had to do it in 2020-21, amid administrative turmoil, a pandemic and a team for whom losing had become a habit. They both had some impact - du Plessis won home and away series against Australia and de Kock oversaw South Africa's first series win in two years - but they also both had enough of leading.
du Plessis gave up the role after a dip in form during a period of racial tension last season while de Kock has been relieved of the job after a tough Test series, personally and collectively, in Pakistan. In both cases, it was obvious that captaining had become a had-to-do, not a want-to-do, often prefaced by the word reluctant. Elgar, new to the job which is doubtless informing his early perspective, is the opposite. "It's going to be tough, and something that you have to be willing to do. Otherwise I don't think you should be put in this position," he said. "I am fortunate to be put in this position and that the hard work I have put in behind the scenes has been noticed."
The desire to lead seems to be at least part of the secret of what makes a good captain. For du Plessis, initially, it made him a better batsman but when results went south, retirements mounted up, and rhetoric in the country was polarised, he stood down. For de Kock, the extra responsibility coupled with the restrictions of living in biosecure environments, always appeared too much. His form suffered, his on-field decisions were iffy, and he appeared out of his depth in interactions with the media.
Even for Elgar, his first dalliance, as a stand-in for du Plessis at Lord's in 2017, did not go well and he was only too happy to hand an imaginary armband back when du Plessis returned from paternity leave. But things have changed. "I've played a few more games since then and learnt a lot more about what Test cricket and how a team operates behind the scenes," Elgar said. "I have been part of the leadership group for a couple of seasons now. Then, I was a young guy just sitting there. Deer in the headlights. I'd like to think I have established experience since then."
Not just any experience. Elgar's 67 Tests make him the most experienced player in the current group, now that du Plessis has retired and taken with him the last link to the class of 2012, that won the Test mace. Though du Plessis was not a playing member of the team that won in England, he travelled with the squad and made his debut in the next series in Australia, where Elgar was also given his first opportunity. They were both rookies in a team that was top of the rankings, where they stayed for another three years, it's Elgar's task to get them back there.
"It's going to be a serious challenge, but it's a challenge I'm really looking forward to. I feel if we get a few things in place we can definitely take the Proteas brand back to where we were a few years ago. That will be my biggest goal," he said. "We owe it to the game to carry on moving it forward. We've got a long line of young, exciting players who've been breaking down doors in domestic cricket to try and get a foot in this squad. It's good to have fresh blood around. We aren't at the level of experience we were a couple of years ago, but we do have a couple of experienced players in the squad. I'm going to rely on them to help me through this journey."
Temba Bavuma, Elgar's vice-captain and new white-ball captain, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj and de Kock are all part of the new senior core and that there are only five names in that mix says a lot about the amount of work South Africa's Test team needs to do. There are places up for grabs and roles to be secured and Elgar hopes the installation of a permanent Test captain can begin the process of settling on a squad. "The players and potential players deserve someone to come in and give them more clarity and more reassurance and stability. That's going to be on my agenda box-ticking as a leader, to try and get a bit of stability to the squad and try and establish an easier process coming in," he said.
Although he wouldn't be drawn into which areas he thinks needs solidifying because South Africa have no confirmed Test fixtures in the foreseeable future. "I don't want to rush into anything now and give a headline saying, 'Elgar thinks the batting is poor.' I think there are areas for us to work on but I am not going to clarify anything now because we have time," he said.
And as that time passes, the South African Test team can be guaranteed of one thing, that in Elgar they will always have a leader who speaks his mind, even when he tells them things they don't want to hear. "I'm still going to be the same guy. I'm still going to have pretty straightforward, open and honest conversations with my team-mates, with the management, with the media," he said.