Out-of-form South African batting great finds himself at an extremely vulnerable stage of his career.
West Indies’ Sheldon Cottrell celebrates taking the wicket of South Africa’s Hashim Amla in the game at Southampton, which lasted 7.3 overs before it was washed out. (Reuters)
It was Ricky Ponting’s last game. One for the road. As he walked away at the end of it all, a South African tapped on his shoulder and asked him, whether he can have a hug. It was Hashim Amla and Ponting threw his arms around him. It says so much about Amla the man, but he now finds himself at an extremely vulnerable stage in his career. There is a whiff of a finale about it, a sad smell of staleness about his batting — are we seeing the last lap of Amla in this world cup but more importantly would he, by the end of it, manage to sign out on a high?
The criticisms about his batting technique, that he faced early in his career, was confounding. It came from the western cricketing media and watchers who fussed a lot about his back-lift and different technique. For a subcontinental watcher, it seemed much ado about nothing. That lovely bat-twirl was familiar to us. Even so, he would take it up a notch. Batsmen generally pick up the bat and get it down like it’s just a piece of wood. Such banality didn’t sit well with Amla.
He twirls it up as if he was Zaheer Abbas on drugs, whiplashing it as opposed to picking up dead wood. Once he settled down and found his space at the international arena, his critics, which included Barry Richards at one stage, understood they were staring at a fabulous batsman who has style and substance and shut up. This is not an attempt to Indianise or make him subcontinental’ as he has clearly dismissed such racial bracketing just before making his debut in India in 2004 when he said, “my blood is green”.
The greatest hope lies in the fact that his next couple of opponents, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, don’t possess express fast bowlers. The kinds who can rush him, make him think about downward bat-swing even before it has reached its zenith and worry about his feet. If he can get going against them, then perhaps, he can whistle out a swansong. Either way, even if he does score, it seems he is nearing the end of an illustrious career.
He has had lean patches before, even in Tests, but this one seems very different. And for the first time, those early criticisms of his technique can be used now without sounding like an Orientalist.
The hand-eye, the extravagant back-lift, the shuffling feet now seem like a burden as he has aged. Even Virender Sehwag, who had a much simpler technique, pretty conventional in the way he picked up his bat, found it hard when he aged. The only thing he shares with Amla was the hand-eye skills; the rest of Amla’s technical baggage has been further accentuated with his age.
The numbers don’t lie, always. At the end of 2015, he averaged 52.70 but has since slid down to 48.98. Worse, in the last 15 games, he has dropped to 32.24.
It’s another number that will annoy him even more: In his last 17 innings, from the start of last year, he has been out 11 times inside the first Powerplay. His stumps have been rattled five times, and he has been caught 4 times in the slips in that phase – perhaps, the damning indication of age. In simpler terms, he has played down the wrong line, beaten by pace or movement, nine times.
Sometimes, the reaction of opponents say a lot more than that of team-mates, obviously trying to rally around him. New Zealand’s Ross Taylor was intending a compliment when he reminded the cricketing world about Amla’s prowess and how he should be rated along with the Kohlis and Smiths of the world, but he used past tense in his Amla rave. “Maybe he’s a little bit older, but his record… he was scoring just as much as those four but just didn’t get enough hype around him,” Taylor said.
Amla’s world had looked so different in late 2017. He had reached his 7000th run, 11 innings quicker than Kohli.
Since then, he has tripped downhill, on 7927 now, but Amla fans can still hope: if he can get 73 runs against Afghanistan in the next game, he would still get to 8K an innings faster than Kohli. But forget all that silliness over landmarks. South Africa desperately need him to roll back the years as they have looked pretty awful without his runs and customary dominance.
He has tried his best to reverse the tide. He even pulled out of domestic T20 competition last month to prepare for the world cup. Even as rain drenched the Southampton cricket ground on Monday, he was at the indoor batting nets, trying to see if he can coax up some magic and runs from his wrists.
The man he wanted to hug also went through a humbling run for a while with calls for his head emanating from Australian press and long sighs from his fans but he managed to turn it right in the end to walk away from the game with a smile. Hopefully, Amla too can.