From crushed to content, Amla unburdens himself

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Amla resigns South Africa captaincy

The Hashim Amla who called his men in from the middle with half-an-hour’s play left on the fourth day was neither the same Amla who addressed the media four days before, nor the same Amla who spoke to them 24 hours later at the conclusion of the match. The first Amla was crushed after his team sank to a fourth defeat in six Tests, the last Amla was content after he stepped down from the captaincy despite a redeeming knock with the bat and a solid team showing, the Amla in-between was a man who had some of his confidence back. 

On the changing room balcony that afternoon, Amla looked a man in control. He was calling his men back even though they were behind England’s mammoth 629 for 6 on the scoreboard but in front in their own minds. They felt that way because after their recent struggles – they could not get past 214 in nine previous innings – they had almost trebled that in one go. Their out of form senior core had made runs and they realised they could compete again. Amla realised he could compete again. 

He must have known that with little over a day left in the game there would probably not be enough time to force a result but he was willing to try. He knew that the only thing that could really happen was that the next day would be wasted as the opposition saw out the session or that his side could seize some mental advantage in a series they are chasing. And it seemed in that moment of clarity, he also affirmed in his own mind that it would not be his side to lead any longer. 

In the aftermath of what was, as they say, a “winning draw” for South Africa, a satisfied Amla stepped down after spending the last two weeks, since the end of the tour of India, wondering whether he should. “I was thinking about it but I wasn’t quite ready at that stage,” he said. 

So what changed?

The only evidence we have is what took place on the field. South Africa fought their way back from defeat in Durban and a massive England total at Newlands to end the first innings on par with England and give them some jitters in the second. There were times on the fifth day when it looked likely South Africa could push for a win. With what you could call their third-choice bowling attack – Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott were all injured – that they had England 85 for 4 and then 116 for 6 was a victory in itself. 

What all that means is that Amla wanted to leave the team in a better place from the one he found it in. In result terms he did not because under him South Africa have gone for their longest streak of matches without a win: eight. But in every other way, he did, because under him South Africa have confronted the two major issues of transition and transformation and now seem to be emerging from both of them with hope for the future.

In personnel terms, South Africa are still looking for the candidates to take over from Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis with the issue of the opener and the allrounder remaining up in the air, but they appear to have solved the wicketkeeping question by entrusting Quinton de Kock with the role. They also seem to be embracing the need for change in terms of the make-up of their team that is not based on cricketing reasons, a situation unique to South Africa because of its segregated past. Transformation (which must be understood for its positive reasons and not its negative connotations) is working and the Newlands match provided the most compelling proof. 

Temba Bavuma became the first black African batsman to score a century for South Africa and the moment resonated with everyone including Amla. “Temba is a very good example for us. The way he batted in this game was very inspirational even for guys like me. The intent he showed. I wish when I was his age, I showed that type of confidence that he showed,” Amla said. 

Hashim Amla can now focus on what he does best: scoring runs © AFP

That was not the only thing Amla could relate to. For the first time, he spoke about his own experiences as a player of colour and the challenges involved in overcoming perceptions. “Temba and I have very similar careers. The first time you play Test cricket everybody doubts you because of the colour of your skin. Even though you’ve got the stats to back it up domestically, everybody doubts you for various reasons.” 

He experienced exactly the same thing but unlike Bavuma, did not enjoy as much support from within the system. Now, Amla can see that has changed. “The way he has played for me is a testament to the environment we have in the team. Everybody in the team knows how talented he is and potential he has. Because he has done it before. It’s not like he just came into the team from nowhere. I was extremely happy, very proud, a goosebump moments.

“Personally, I know the pressure players of colour go through when they first come into the set up, especially in our country. It was emotional for a lot of us, a lot of us felt it was a victory for the Proteas in a sense that the team environment is in a really good space. I hope I played a small part in his success and I’m glad that he quietened a lot of people down.” 

In seeing that, Amla realised that being a leader was about more than being a captain.”I’ve always felt as senior players we’ve got a role to play and that it is vitally important to create an environment for people of all colours of skin. I am going to try and continue that,” he said. “Now maybe I will have more time, because I am not worried about bowling changes and this and that, to invest in the younger guys.” 

So South Africa can expect a more forthright Amla, an Amla who can make a statement like: “You don’t look like me in this world without being firm on what you want to do,” and an Amla that is free of the technicalities of captaincy? They probably want that. 

Amla was criticised for the decisions he made in the field, like taking a slip out when the strike bowlers were steaming in, for his bowling choices, such as not giving Morne Morkel the second new ball, and sometimes for his overly defensive field placings. Some of the naysayers came from afar, but others were former players including the former captain Smith. Amla tried to take it all in his stride. 

“Criticism is never nice to receive. But you tend to get a thick skin and know which criticism has value in it and which doesn’t have value in it,” he said. “I tried to take whatever good I’ve seen and consulted with those around me about where I can improve. I would like to believe the recent criticism hasn’t played a role in changing my mind.”

The only thing that may have made him stay on was a sense of duty but the stand-in, AB de Villiers, possess that in bucketloads. De Villiers has been described as the ultimate team man, who will do anything if asked. In this series alone, he has gone from keeper to overworked to captain. He probably wants the last one most. De Villiers was deeply disappointed when he lost out to Amla in June 2014 and this is his opportunity to show that he wants the job permanently. 

Russell Domingo has described de Villiers as the “frontrunner” for the post when it comes under consideration between the end of the England series and South Africa’s next Test outing against New Zealand in August but there are other possibilities.

Faf du Plessis is the T20 skipper with an impressive tactical acumen but needs to find consistent form, Dean Elgar has been touted as a possibility and there is the outside chance of a comeback from Smith, who has hinted at it recently. Whoever it is, Amla has promised his services. For now, he just wants to bat. 

There is a reason why the Amla who called his men in from the middle with half-an-hour’s play left on the fourth day was different to the Amla who addressed the media four days before and the one who spoke to them 24 hours later. The first Amla was worried, the second Amla was carefree and the Amla in-between had just been unburdened.

“It’s a bit of relief because now I don’t have to worry about winning the toss or not.” Or about anything else a captain has on his plate.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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