It isn’t very unusual for sportsmen on the wrong side of 30 to constantly live under the fear of obsolescence. As the years grow upon you; taking with them your agility, form and, in some cases, your drive to grind through a tough day, there are always some questions that linger on in your head.
Have I still got it? Am I past my prime? Is this the end?
Hashim Amla, aged 34; a premier South African batsman for the better part of the past decade, perfectly fits into this sub-set of sportsmen — battling age, form and expectations all at once.
While one can’t conclusively determine if Amla had started thinking on these lines, one wouldn’t be surprised if these thoughts had entered Amla’s mind in the past year or so.
Considering that he hasn’t had the best of times recently, South Africa’s former captain must be relieved after his twin half-centuries against England at Trent Bridge.
Amla came into the second Test with his team in all sorts of trouble. As if missing their star batsman AB de Villiers wasn’t enough, the Proteas were further jolted with the one-match ban on Kagiso Rabada. Vernon Philander too was nursing a hand injury from the previous Test. Faf du Plessis was also joining the squad after his child’s difficult birth. There is a reason why Quinton de Kock is still referred to as the ‘baby assassin’.
And a certain Dale Steyn has been absent for a while now.
In effect, it meant South Africa really had only a few names worth their salt who could lead the team out of this crisis.
Du Plessis wins the toss under overcast conditions and contrary to the obvious cricketing dictum, decides to bat. The South African openers stride out to the centre. And within the first 10 overs, Amla is summoned to the crease after Dean Elgar’s tentative drive leads to his downfall. The situation is tailor made for Amla — early morning, one wicket down and helpful conditions for the bowlers. Just like many times before, he doesn’t disappoint — firstly rebuilding the innings with Heino Kuhn, before coming together with de Kock for a 113-run partnership.
In the second innings, the Proteas lost an early wicket once again. Although the situation in this instance wasn’t as precarious as that in the first innings, South Africa still needed their batsman to not spoil the good work of their bowlers, who had helped the side grab a 130-run lead.
For the second time in the game, Amla was at the centre within the first 10 overs of the innings. He had to make sure his side went to stumps without any further casualties and in Elgar, he found a worthy ally. Together, they took South Africa’s lead past 200 before stumps, seeing off the dangerous James Anderson and Stuart Broad; both kings of Trent Bridge in their own rights, while attacking the spinners.
On the fourth morning, Amla survived a lucky break on 25, when he edged a Broad delivery, but Joe Root and Co didn’t review it, fearing wastage of the review. Amla must have realised it was his day and he continued grinding out his way, looking more and more assured as the innings went on, particularly against left-arm orthodox bowler Liam Dawson.
While his score of 87 wouldn’t seem that big a score, in the context of the game, its value is far greater than what is visible on the scorecard.
Before the series, there were talks of how Amla would fare in this series. While the Amla of 2012 — was one on the rise, who would go on to become one of the best players of his generation, the Amla of 2017 is one on wane, having recently seen his batting average fall below 50 after a long time. South African legend Barry Richards talked of Amla not being at his best ahead of the series opener at Lord’s. It would be safe to say that Amla’s innings at Trent Bridge was a fitting response to all those who were starting to question if he was a spent force in Test cricket.
Amla has made a career out of silencing critics and doubters ever since bursting onto the international stage. It began with questions around his back-lift early on, and then moved on to him being too classical and too slow to succeed in other forms of the game. Amla has dispelled all those notions emphatically.
He has been piling on runs in ODIs and hammering bowlers in T20s across the globe, without making a noise about it. It is a huge achievement for any batsman to be the record-holder for being the fastest to 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 ODI runs. Keeping in mind all the unwarranted cynicism and criticism regarding Amla’s ODI game early on in his career, he should be hailed as one of the best of the modern time for becoming so adept at a form of cricket that not many thought was his cup of tea.
Yet such has been everyone’s obsession with cricket’s version of the ‘Big Four’ — Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Steve Smith that Amla’s achievements are rarely recognised in the same breath.
It is fairly possible that England would hold on to a well-fought draw on the last day. It is also possible the fight-back by South Africa in this Test would not last long.
The point is, no matter what happens the next day or in the series, Amla is back.
This alone should be a moment worth celebrating for the South African team.