Danyal Rasool in Centurion
The drawback to being in form all the time is no one quite knows what it looks like when you’re out of it. And for Hashim Amla, who had, with an average of 23.36 over 10 Tests in the past 12 months, this was a particularly nagging problem, the gravest dip in form in over a decade.
The luxuriant cover drives, the deft wristwork, the natural elegance of South Africa’s “rock at number three”, as Faf du Plessis called him before the Centurion Test, is cricket’s answer to the Bolshoi Ballet, as much artistic as it has proved substantial. The technique is so perfect, the movements so unfailingly graceful, when they fail to produce the results they seem naturally predisposed to, the dissonance is disconcerting.
There was talk of the dip being more of a decline; Amla has, after all, been playing international cricket for over 14 years, and at 35, is the oldest player in the current South African side. The scratchy, ungainly time he had spent in the first innings against Pakistan did little to dispel the impression this was a man with his best behind him.
In the years Amla has been in the side, one of the more successful marketing campaigns surrounding cricket teams has been the #ProteaFire slogan created to represent the fierce combativeness of a team that would refuse to give up. It appears to have caught the imagination of the public, both at home and abroad, a symbol of how this side plays its cricket, with its heart on its sleeve and passion on full display.
And yet Amla, one of the faces of the modern, inclusive South African cricket team, is as far removed from the “fire” this side purports to showcase as a sportsman could be. One would be reduced to poring through hours of archival footage to see so much as a significant change in facial expression from the man. Even so, playing international cricket at a high level for such a long time must surely only be possible if unbridled passion courses through the veins; many a cricketer will tell you once that motivation is lost, the game is over.
Coming out to bat with his side 0 for 1 in an awkward chase, Amla was out to demonstrate how he interpreted ProteaFire. He survived a magnificent opening hour from Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali and Shaheen Afridi – not without luck; he was dropped in the slips on 8 – doggedly resistant while he couldn’t find his touch, and devastatingly effective as it returned to him. A pair of fours through the onside in the early overs might just have given him back his confidence, but there was hours’ worth of work left to be done. Under an overcast sky with the ball rearing and one of the world’s best pace attacks at his throat, Amla, along with Dean Elgar, kept surviving. And, if Elgar is to be believed, cricket was the last topic of discussion as they met in the middle during the change of overs.
“There’s a lot of jokes going on when Hash and I bat together,” Elgar said. “There’s not a lot of cricket talk when we bat. We try to see the lighter side of life. That’s maybe your five or ten seconds that you can actually switch off a little bit and crack a joke or throw a little one liner out. Hash and I, we get each other with our humour. Definitely there was time for seriousness, when we knew we were getting closer to our final point. But in the beginning it was quite humorous.”
With Amla not naturally the most extroverted person, anecdotes like these are what help explain why he enjoys an almost unique reverence and affection among cricketers and fans around the world. He might be out there fighting for a scrappy Test win for his side, but the sense Amla manages to retain perspective better than almost anyone else makes him more relatable to fans, even in this uber-professional modern world. Du Plessis, who had so backed Amla ahead of the Test, said there was nothing about his game he had changed in a bid to regain form.
“He’s done absolutely nothing different. That’s been the trademark of, looking behind the scenes, what Hashim has always done. He sticks to exactly the same things. Whether he scores runs or doesn’t, his mental application and attitude away from the game remains the same. He’s a very level-headed, calm guy. You don’t see him get frantic when he doesn’t score runs. He just believes it will turn. And in cricket, that’s how it works. You need a dropped catch, and then all of a sudden the lucks gone your way.”
As the target began to whittle down and the ball lost its shine and venom, it was Pakistan who blinked. With Amla back to his unflappable self, the bowlers went searching for his wicket, in the process feeding him the shots out of which he has made such a glittering career. After the first 15 overs, Amla found himself getting greater width, allowing him to brandish that glorious cut, and whenever he found a delivery on his pads, the snappy flick inevitably dispatched it to midwicket.
As Elgar got out and South Africa began to lose wickets by the time the result was a foregone conclusion, Amla was still standing at the other end. He may have scored just three runs of the last 25 on the path to victory, but, as ever, when a South African batsman came to the crease, he found that rock standing at the other end. It wasn’t the innings of a man looking for a swansong, but one who embodies the ProteaFire motto in his own, truly inimitable way.