Hashim Amla might never return to the form that took him to the top of the world – and that’s okay. After 14 years at the peak of international cricket, the awkward questions that accompany a career in its twilight inevitably begin to swirl. An extended dip in form set against exceptionally high standards usually precipitates the current mood around South Africa's premier batsman.
All the greats have had to endure questions about their durability, mortality and hunger for years before they actually entertained the thought themselves. The desire to prove detractors wrong or saying farewell on a high often keeps a legend going for a few more years.
Amla is not one for ceremony and made-for-TV tribute inserts, even though there will be plenty when he goes, but such is the results-driven nature of sport that even careers built for the history books can be curtailed in the pursuit of all that glitters in the here and now.
Can Amla hurry up and return to form? It’s a callous and myopic knee-jerk reaction that has no place in the final analysis of a spectacular modern-day cricketing career. Had Amla’s career stats belonged to a more flashy, exuberant, cocky player, he would be … well … Virat Kohli.
His debut in Kolkata in 2004 will forever be etched in those history books and credited as the day that delivered Amla to Test cricket, played in a country steeped in ancestral significance for his family, and a moment of reflection for transformative reasons back home, Amla being the first player of Indian descent to play a Test match for South Africa.
Amla’s contribution to South African cricket is undeniable. He has become a role model for success at every level of the game, which makes his current lack of form all the more excruciating to witness. Amla last scored a Test century almost a year ago – 132 against Bangladesh in Bloemfontein. He averages 36.47 runs over the past 21 Test matches. In one-day internationals, he averages 28.63 runs in his 11 matches so far this year.
Few other players would receive this much scrutiny during a spell of poor form. The standard set for a player of Amla’s quality is reserved for the batting greats such as Gary Kirsten, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. The thick climate of expectation no doubt has drifted from De Villiers across to Amla over the past few months as the countdown to another World Cup campaign begins. But expectation turns into pressure, and a routine abandonment of batting form sparks a world of hysteria so unworthy of the man himself.
Amla’s recent campaign in Sri Lanka makes for frustrating reading. In the five-match ODI series, he averaged 32.2 runs, with scores of 19, 43, 59, 40 and 0. In two Test matches, he posted scores of 15, 0, 19 and 6. In the ODIs, in particular, he always seemed one good innings away from breaking through into a new purple patch, but perhaps it is naive to expect that this is how Amla’s process works.
We don’t know how it works. From a distance, it’s easy to pick him apart. He seems out of sorts. His timing is off. He’s unlucky at times when he is striking the white ball well, meaning consistency escapes him.
The former Durban High School cricketer recently turned out for the Barbados Tridents in the Caribbean Premier League, where he recorded scores of 3, 35, 2, 3, 15 and 14.
Who is to say how and when Amla will return to form? Certainly, the weight of expectation has been compounded in the absence of De Villiers. They’ve thrived as a batting combo for a decade. The two greats scored 3 111 runs together between 2008 and 2018, with a highest score of 238 and an average of 72.34 runs.
Their partnerships included 12 centuries and eight 50s.
As the dynamics shift within the team as the World Cup approaches, so too will Amla’s role, and the coming months will shape and inform his job description.
Lessons from India
There are lessons to be learned from India’s handling of the latter days of Sachin Tendulkar’s career.
Approaching a World Cup on home soil in India in 2011, Tendulkar, aged 37, played just two ODIs in 2010, but he had his most successful year of Test cricket with the bat, scoring a total of 1 562 runs in 14 Test matches, at an average of 78.1 runs. It included seven centuries and a highest score of 214 runs.
“I know my body. I would do whatever is needed for the World Cup,” Tendulkar explained at the time.
The lower-intensity, long form of the game allowed Tendulkar to spend long periods of time in the middle while keeping his competitive edge – with plenty of rest between matches.
India went on to win the World Cup. Tendulkar contributed two centuries and two 50s, and averaged 53.55 runs for the tournament. He scored a total of 482 runs.
Amla’s record at three World Cups is not embarrassing by any stretch. He averages 42.6 with two hundreds and three 50s. He is a proven match winner, but is he being given the best opportunity to return to his best?
Amla will likely never return to his 29-year-old self. No player does. He will probably never return to the man who set The Oval alight with a record-breaking 311 not out. He, more likely than most, has probably accepted that fact already. And that’s okay.
But Amla means more to the team than just a bag of runs and mind-boggling statistics – he is a leader on and off the field.
Amla will be 36 going into the 2019 World Cup. A fourth World Cup for him would probably be his last, and arguably his most important.
His value to a young squad, most of whom will be playing in their first World Cup, can never be underestimated. Across the Proteas’ seven lamentable World Cup campaigns there has never been a shortage of match winners – only a shortage of leaders.
Calm, calculating and circumspect heads have eluded South Africa at critical moments, despite their obvious talent, and with every missed opportunity in the big tournaments, the desire burns more intensely among fans and critics alike.
There was a poignancy in Amla’s debut on Indian soil in 2004 and an air of destiny when he broke the South African Test batting record in 2012. He has broken boundaries off the field and cleared them when he is batting at the crease. There is little else to do but be patient and appreciate Amla’s process and his artistry while we still have him.