Hashim Amla is the key for South Africa. If he has a good World Cup, so do South Africa. If he doesn’t, neither do they. He will leave big shoes to fill and, at 36, he is close to leaving them.
Baby shoes. When Hashim Amla wasn't travelling to all parts of the cricketing globe to face the world's best bowlers — the few not in South Africa's team, at least — that's what he did with his time, he had an online business that sold baby shoes.
It was a welcome humanising detail about someone who tends to keep at arm's length a world that expects to know everything about people it knows nothing about except how they play cricket.
Amla offered this glimpse into his reality while players and press milled around at a grand, faux-Tuscan Johannesburg hotel on 6 June, 2011, waiting for the advent of the next significant era in the game in South Africa. Minutes later the moment arrived — Gary Kirsten, fresh from being carried around Wankhede Stadium on the shoulders of Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina as his immediate reward for guiding India to World Cup glory that year, was unveiled as South Africa's new coach.
Almost eight years on, much has changed. Just more than a year after that occasion, Amla was immovable on three days at the Oval for an undefeated 311, still the only triple century by a South African. As things stand that innings will be the jewel in his legacy, but the crown around it is solid with the gold of a career that will be remembered with those of the very best.
He has been unconventional in a cricket culture that prizes orthodoxy, and proved himself adaptable between the formats despite the near obsession with pigeonholing players. His star rose high enough for him to be appointed South Africa's captain — a position he resigned from in January 2016 in the midst of a Test series against England. He was human after all.
Too human, as it turns out. For weeks now, cricketminded South Africans have been asking each other whether Amla should be in the World Cup squad. The distance he has kept between himself and the public has cost him the benefit of the doubt that has been afforded to other players at similar stages of their careers.
If Amla had been Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis or AB de Villiers, he would have enjoyed more empathy from those now only too eager to consign his white-ball career to the annals. Indeed, Kallis was mollycoddled to an alarming degree in the cause of ushering him to the 2015 World Cup. Happily he had the good sense to pull the plug on all that in July 2014.
It doesn't help that Amla is part of a demonstrably other minority in a society that, for all its superficial lip service to the contrary, remains deeply suspicious of difference. His devotion to Islam is well-received and respected inside the dressingroom, less so outside it.
South Africans of all stripes do not struggle to recognise Amla's greatness as a player — although many of them hid their prejudice behind criticism of his crooked backlift early in his career — but they are less sure of him as a person. In these minds, he is someone strange enough to take off his shoes to pray to God, but not someone mainstream enough to offer baby shoes for sale.
That he has been away from the game for much of the past month while his father has been battling cancer has drawn quizzical attention. Shouldn't he have been playing county cricket to re-acquaint himself with English conditions, as Aiden Markram has done? Amla has played 41 first-class matches in England along with 39 white-ball games. He can easily get his re-acquainting done in the nets and in South Africa's two warm-up matches.
Even so, Amla's form has been a concern. The good news is he scored 108 not out and 59 in five innings in his most recent one-day series — the relevant format in a World Cup year — against Pakistan in January. The less than good news is that those are among only four efforts of 50 or more in the 15 innings he had for South Africa across all formats in 2018-19.
He faced more than 200 balls only three times in 10 Test innings, and four trips to the crease against Sri Lanka brought him just 51 runs. The player who stood firm for the equivalent of less than two overs short of an entire day's play at the Oval in 2012 was struggling to stay standing for just more than a session.
With his impressive beard and stoop and his unathletic fielding, Amla has looked like an old man his entire career. Now, his unorthodoxy held up to a cold, withering light and his timing making him look like a badly dubbed movie, he was playing like one.
But Reeza Hendricks, Amla's rival for a place in South Africa's World Cup squad, has had an even worse time of it at international level. Scores of 45, five, 83 not out, two, 34, one, 29, four and eight — Hendricks' chronological record in ODIs this year — are not what you want to take to a World Cup as an opener. And, through no fault of his own, Hendricks isn't Amla. No-one is. That matters more than it would have done in earlier South Africa dressing rooms.
Faf du Plessis might yet be acclaimed among cricket's best-ever captains — not for what he has won but because he has rooted his leadership in reality. He never praises players unduly nor rips into them unfairly. He is a reporter's nightmare because, not only does he talk a lot at press conferences and in interviews, he also says a lot — transcribing him takes exponentially longer than with others. Pertinently, he has not tried to fool anyone that his team are among the favourites to win the World Cup.
du Plessis needs Amla, in all his greatness and his recent frailties, to drive the point home. Here is a player who has been better than most for much of his time in the game and is now diminished, but he is still Amla. He is du Plessis' proof that not being among the favourites to win the World Cup doesn't mean you don't believe you can win it.
du Plessis and Amla, along with JP Duminy, Imran Tahir and Dale Steyn, are veterans of the 2011 and 2015 tournaments. Quinton de Kock and David Miller discovered what it was all about in Australasia in 2015.
They loom like African elephants to newbies Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Andile Phehlukwayo, Rassie van der Dussen, Tabraiz Shamsi, Dwaine Pretorius, Anrich Nortjé and Markram.
Despite an intense raking of the talent bed by the selectors — 39 debuts have been handed out in the white-ball formats since the 2015 World Cup — South Africa’s squad comprises 15 obvious names.
Chris Morris’ supporters might wonder why he hasn’t cracked the nod ahead of Pretorius, but the fact that Morris didn’t play in South Africa’s last 21 ODIs for reasons of injury and form tells us he wasn’t close to selection. In any event, Phehlukwayo is a better bet than anyone in the squad to keep his composure under the kind of pressure that comes with this territory.
Few hit the ball harder than van der Dussen, and if the pitches are flat enough he will be a threat of Kluseneresque proportions. Shamsi will struggle to get a game with the hold Tahir has on the spinner’s berth and there’s little call for two given South Africa’s trust in pace. Nortjé — just four ODIs into his international career but clearly a quality quick — is the closest the selectors came to picking a bolter.
From left field has come the idea for Miller to serve as de Kock’s emergency wicketkeeping understudy. But how hard is it to put a stumper on standby in South Africa and then onto the plane if needs be, considering there are never fewer than two and sometimes as many as four days between group games?
Whatever. Amla is the key. If he has a good World Cup, so do South Africa. If he doesn’t, neither do they. He will leave big shoes to fill and, at 36, he is close to leaving them. But remember, too, his baby shoes.
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