“You don’t look like me in this world without being firm on what you want to do.”
Hashim Amla, South Africa’s best Test batsman, said these words while resigning as the captain of the Test side. In any context, these are strong, evocative words – made even stronger by the fact that this came on the back of an emotional Temba Bavuma (the son of transformation) century in the Newlands Test, the second against England after their loss at Durban. A man of colour, as Amla often said, has a lot more to prove in recent cricketing sides. Suddenly, though, on the final day of the second Test, all the stars aligned for the beleaguered bearded gentleman. After leading South Africa through their longest winless streak ever, Amla led them to one more winless game – albeit a match that may have changed everything in the larger scheme of things. It was a moral victory for the team that had conceded 629 runs in less than 1.5 days at a run rate of more than 5. When they came in to bat, many wondered if Amla’s team would collapse again, or worse, if Amla would ever walk in to bat after that.
Not only did Amla respond with a brilliant 201 to keep his team afloat, his boy wonder Bavuma scored his maiden Test century, thereby confirming the fact that he is in this side on merit, and not on any quota. As if to make a statement, he then declared when they were on 627, knowing that they were now back in business. They hadn’t crossed 214 in 9 previous innings; now, they were looking at their highest score in more than a year. This was a remarkable backs-against-wall comeback by a team that has consistently shown character in underdog situations. They were with Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott, but still gave England a huge scare on the final day, before light prevented them from pushing further for a win. Amla soon after announced his resignation as the leader, around 18 months after he took over from Graeme Smith in 2014. This wasn’t a selfish decision – it was timely, and he made sure the team was in a better position than it was four days ago or four months ago.
I remember the day Amla took over as the captain. I was surprised that AB de Villiers wasn’t handed the role, and even more surprised when Amla backed it up with a fighting, labored 1-0 series victory in Sri Lanka. Back then, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were still in the pink of health and well among the runs. No South African captain had ever gone to Sri Lanka and come back with a win. Amla did, in his first series, before he then took his team to Zimbabwe and West Indies to win some easier matches. They had won their first three series under him, before the honeymoon ended in the subcontinent. First, it was the frustrating rained-out series against Bangladesh, followed by a humbling 3-0 defeat to India, which must have made Amla wonder if he was designed to lead a No. 1 Test side through a transitional phase.
After losing the Durban test, their fourth in six Tests, everything was on the line. Amla’s average had also plummeted to the low 50s, he hadn’t crossed 50 in more than 10 innings, he averaged 40-odd as captain, and was clearly deteriorating as a batsman – his greatest craft – as the worried leader of this side. Newlands tested his character and then some; his 201 was a telling return to form. While the leader in him died, the artist in him was reborn. And perhaps that is what his team needs the most at the moment. Giving AB De Villiers the responsibility for now is a smart decision, and will only let Amla concentrate as being more of a mentor to the youngsters in the team instead of worrying about field placements, bowling changes and press conferences.
He will also be in the unlikely position of looking for a record-breaking fifth double century for South Africa in the final two matches of this series. They don’t play another Test match until August against New Zealand. His last century, the 23rd of his test career, came 13 months ago in December 2014 against a weak West Indies side. That was also a double (208). 13 months later, and a 24th century, almost ten years after he scored his first, Hashim Amla is back.