Last Thursday, a legion of Hashim Amla fanatics breathed a collective sigh of relief as the veteran Protea batsman was selected in South Africa’s provisional World Cup squad.
Whether he retires having scored one of his deceptively destructive hundreds in the final at Lord’s in mid-July or not, Amla will now have the option of stepping aside – at least from the shorter forms of the game – after the World Cup.
Had he been omitted, it would have been a lamentably limp way of slipping from the scene.
Amla deserves better. Only Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers have scored more ODI and T20 runs for South Africa than Amla’s 9,187 – and Amla has done so in considerably fewer matches.
It seems likely now that Amla will open the batting for the Proteas in the opening game of the tournament on 30 May at the Oval – scene of Amla’s finest innings, his glorious triple hundred in the first Test against England in the 2012 series.
Fortunate enough to have tickets for the whole Test, I sat through every one of the 529 balls he faced. The innings began awkwardly. The light was poor and Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad were swinging the new ball lavishly. Alviro Peterson had perished LBW to Anderson for a duck. Amla and his captain, Graeme Smith, dug in and somehow survived until the heavens opened.
When the game resumed a good couple of hours later, the clouds had gone and a delightful late afternoon summer’s light illuminated a brilliant display of batting craft from Amla, who played a succession of on-drives off his hip – a very difficult shot to execute that only the very best of batsmen can make look as easy and elegant as Amla did that day.
The sad thing was that few others in the ground were sober enough to absorb the display of skill out in the middle. Englishmen – and women – are not prone to allowing a lengthy rain delay to be anything other than a rich excuse to accelerate their rate of boozing.
So very few people were paying any attention to Amla. It was their loss. Meanwhile, he could not have cared less. He went calmly about his business, as he always does. And then he went on and on. For another whole day. And a good chunk of a third day, too. Thirteen hours in total. One of the great innings, and the only South African to score a triple century.
Aside from his skill, it is the demeanour and dignity of the man that stands out. Not even Julius Malema could ruffle this chap’s feathers. Early in his career, he had an unusually angled back lift, that sent his bat high towards gully and then, like a rodeo cowboy lassoing a bull, round and then down in a dramatic parabola towards the oncoming ball.
When, like many in the early foothills of their Test career, Amla nicked off a few times for modest scores, commentators queued up to question his technique.
Not so Gary Kirsten. The former Proteas opening batsman had embarked upon a coaching career that was to deliver significant success and, indeed, continues to do so. Interviewing him on the subject of transformation in cricket at his newly opened high-performance cricket academy in Cape Town soon after Amla’s test debut, pooh-poohed anxieties about the KwaZulu-Natalian’s technique.
At this level, Kirsten told me, it’s not about technique or even talent – because they’re all talented – but about temperament. Amla will make it for sure, I was crisply informed.
Why? Because having seen Amla make 300 in a Castle Cup final was evidence enough for the wily Kirsten that he had what it takes to succeed at the highest level, as he has proved over and over again in the 124 tests that he has played since his debut 15 years ago in December 2004.
Whether or not the Proteas’ selectors had to think long and hard, and whether they accepted my opening proposition – that a cricketing great like Amla deserves to retire rather than be dropped – we will probably never know.
It may have been their toughest decision since there was only room for two of Amla, Aidan Markram and Reeza Hendricks. It was tough on Hendricks, a powerful specialist one-day opening batsman. But, even if the sun shines like it did last summer in England, it is much more a place for a specialist opening batsman – and bowlers, for that matter – than anywhere else.
Consider this: despite the fact that 2018 was the hottest summer since 1976, the average runs per wicket in the English county championship last season was the lowest since the early 1960s – and not all the games took place during the chilly opening weeks or the dewy last phase of the Championship.
So picking the experienced Amla and a genuine opening batsman, Markram, was a perfectly rational decision.
There can be little controversy over the rest of the selection. Dwaine Pretorius represents a more dynamic option than Chris Morris, and Anrich Nortje looked like a real thoroughbred – and a seriously pacey one at that – when I saw him at Centurion in his second ODI last month. Of course, it’s a gamble to pick such a raw and inexperienced talent – but a justifiable, and exciting, risk to take.
Everyone else pretty much picked themselves. In the Indian Premier League, South Africans are shining: Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir have provided many of the most stellar performances.
The Proteas can go into the Cricket World Cup 2019 brimming with talent and confidence. But in the end, it will hinge, as it did with Amla, on temperament. Can they cope with the pressure at the key moments in the biggest games?
It would be a fitting finale for Hash were his team to conquer their nerves and vanquish the “choker” label they have earned in successive World Cups. And if they can collectively emulate Amla’s equanimity and quiet resolve then they, like him, will prevail. DM
Sheep wool never sheds.