The breathtaking image of a cricket ground, steeped in blue skies and embedded at the foot of an iconic mountain range – the perfect contrast of lush green and bright blue. The contours of a natural giant frame this masterpiece. Below, nestled into a small pocket of the Railway Stand just in front of the electronic scoreboard: Hashim Amla’s army are on song. The fake beards are all on show, though not necessarily strapped to their chins; the wind teasing just enough to flap the detachable hair into their fully open mouths. But they don’t care.
It’s day two in Cape Town and South Africa are taking Sri Lanka to the cleaners. Quinton de Kock was feasting on a depleted bowling attack like maggots on a fresh carcass. The tailenders were frustrating Suranga Lakmal and Lahiru Kumara. Sri Lanka couldn’t afford this; not after winning the toss and bowling in seam-friendly conditions. The last five wickets would put on 57 percent of the Protea’s first innings total and effectively put a bullet in Sri Lanka’s already battered temple.
Needless to say, these fans, which are as close to ‘ultras’ as the Test summer can muster, were in their element; unfortunately the same cannot be said for their idol.
Amla’s Difficult 2016
Hashim Amla has now gone ten innings without a Test fifty. His current form is reminiscent of his struggles in Asia in 2015, back when he was at his lowest ebb. At that point, he was juggling flaming torches. The pressure to score a glut of runs, (as is demanded on Indian soil) while captaining a sinking ship on cricket’s most difficult tour was all too much. Something had to give.
Sure enough, two Tests into the England series in January 2016 and with South Africa 1-0 down, Amla announced that he would be stepping down as South African captain. He claimed that he had made the decision before the start of the series. Thus his 201 in the second Test must have been his release. It was a real breaking of the shackles moment; he was no longer bound to the energy sapping responsibilities that come with leading one’s country. He was a free batsman; free again to score and score heavily. Free to pile on the misery for the Protea’s opponents.
However, one year on from his resignation and that hasn’t happened. South Africa’s second most esteemed batsmen in its history is struggling and the return of AB de Villiers is looming over selectors: a future problem but with a nagging omniscience. AB will play, there is no question about it; some room has to be made to accommodate South Africa’s most illustrious player.
Sharpen the pitchforks and fetch the kerosene; the suggestion that is about to be made will border on cricketing sacrilege.
Should South Africa drop Hashim Amla?
A Team on Song
The major issue is that there is no get out of jail free card for Cricket South Africa; no easy swap. Everyone has stepped up their game in the current XI, and when you have to drop somebody from a winning side, there will always be someone who’ll feel hard done by. Although in examining the latest evidence, Amla is presenting himself as the appropriate sacrifice.
The Proteas’ batsmen
First Test versus Sri Lanka: Stephen Cook makes a hundred and puts on two century partnerships for the first wicket with Elgar. Second Test versus Sri Lanka: Elgar scores a hundred and his second fifty of the series. Both Elgar and Cook also recorded Test centuries in Australia. The openers are constantly conspiring to make fools of their doubters.
JP Duminy is looking revitalised after a potentially career-saving century in Australia. It was his first since 2014 in Tests. At Port Elizabeth, his newly found form was put into context when batting with a struggling Amla. While Hashim was awkwardly cagey, eschewing all possible opportunities to get forward, JP was fluid with his stride, and crisp with his striking.
Meanwhile, Faf du Plessis is proving the facelift that the captaincy so desperately needed. His aggressive nature has orchestrated the upturn in South Africa’s fortunes. Leading with the bat down the order and alongside Quinton de Kock, a modern day Gilchrist in the making, the Proteas now possess a lower-middle order, which has the potential to be as frightening a proposition as India’s Ajinkya Rahane and Ravichandran Ashwin.
Play of the day
In the field, Bavuma is at it again. He leaps, he cocks, he flings, he soars. The ball is fired ferociously and it rattles the timbers. The stumps shatter into loose chips of debris before he has even hit the deck. Dimuth Karunaratne is spared the walk of shame, but only just. The leaping salmon was inches from bagging another cracker – almost a carbon copy of his David Warner run-out in December.
It is also worth mentioning that while Temba Bavuma may not be lighting it up with the bat, he has scored two fifties in his last ten innings.
Batsmen 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 are making plays, pleading cases and solidifying their Test futures. But Amla, the Mr Dependable, the wall, the run machine of South African cricket for the best part of 12 years is now coming face to face with a wall of his own.
With the series against Sri Lanka already wrapped up and only a dead rubber to play, could Amla be dropped to accommodate the development of younger players such as all-rounder Theunis de Bruyn?
This is not to say that Amla should be banished from the side indefinitely. Nor indeed that he should be the one to eventually make way for AB. But at this very moment, you’d pick him to step aside over anyone else.
Strength in numbers
There are three main advantages to benching Amla for the third Test next week. Firstly, it gives South Africa the chance to blood young players, affording the opportunity perhaps for debutant Theunis de Bruyn to stake a claim for selection in upcoming tours. More importantly, it would give the young man precious experience and a chance to build his confidence with less pressure, (the series is already won) on him to perform.
Secondly, it provides an opportunity for South Africa to broaden their scope. Instead of building a world-class eleven, how about building a world-class squad? The gargantuan away stint in England is on the horizon for the Proteas. They will arrive in May for an ODI series, then stay for the Champions Trophy, a T20 series and a four-match Test series. They will not leave British shores until mid-August.
As Pakistan demonstrated last year, you have to have a strong squad if you are to walk away with two Test victories in England. Had it not been for Sami Aslam replacing Shan Masood and Sohail Kahn replacing Rahat Ali, they would never have salvaged a result from the series. Pakistan had a good bench; South Africa could have one too.
Who is to say that a healthy scrap between the likes of Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Temba Bavuma and any other prospects currently on the outside looking in, isn’t good for the Protea’s red ball form?
A rotation policy bearing fruit
South Africa have to be brave; they have to be daring. Look at India and how they have used a rotation policy to better their squad depth. Dangling the carrot in front of hungry batsmen can have a very powerful effect; when they get the chance to shine, they might just grab it.
For India, Rohit Sharma is a player who is used as the ultimate motivator as opposed to what critics would view as a chastening spectre. He is in the squad as the aggressor; Test cricket’s tactical sub. Be positive, score with freedom and make your chances count, because if not, Rohit is ready to replace you.
The rhetoric is that there are always places up for grabs, and chances to prove yourself on long tours. After all, injuries are a near certainty and dips in form are inevitable. South Africa have the chance to adopt such shrewd tactics to deduce who should make way for AB and also to confirm that their current team is indeed the best available.
With four Tests before England, why not try a few viable combinations while also allowing out-of-form players to go and play at domestic level. Competition for places is healthy, and as long as there is the whiff of an opportunity around the corner, it keeps everyone interested.
Being dropped Amla’s watershed moment?
The final advantage of dropping Amla is that it would give him time to go and work on his game. The next round of Sunfoil Series (SA’s domestic competition) games are scheduled to start on the 12th of January. While South Africa battle it out for the chance to take a series sweep, Amla could be given some match practice with his domestic club, Dolphins, in order to reignite his form. After all, Amla is the game changer against England.
For his entire career, Amla has had England’s number: six centuries and a career average of 56.21 against them. Even more astonishing is his average in England – 75.7 in seven matches including a triple hundred and two second-innings centuries. He is the man that needs to be on form if South Africa are to have a chance this summer. Being dropped could be the watershed moment he needs; he could come back stronger for the New Zealand series and thus put the pressure back on somebody else.
History favours the brave
History indicates that there’s nothing wrong with dropping the best. Looking at two recent examples of international cricket’s high profile drops, the ends have justified the means. Joe Root was dropped after a torrid time down under in the 2013 Ashes. Although that was very early in his career, people were sure that he was something special. Sure enough, since his return to the England side he has never looked back.
Even more recently, Chesteshwar Pujara was dropped during India’s Carribean tour in 2016 for his habit of scoring slowly. He was replaced for the third Test despite his career average of 46.83 because captain Virat Kohli and coach Anil Kumble knew he had the ability to be better and score more positively. Right now, Amla too could be doing better.
Since Pujara’s return he has plundered 774 runs in 8 matches with three centuries and four fifties: a very Amla-esque stat, especially against England. Perhaps with a little time away from the national side, and with time to consult a few coaches, past players and play some domestic cricket, Amla too can regain his mastery of run production, which in the past has made him such a dangerous proposition for South Africa’s impending opponents.