Hashim Amla: Lull before the storm?
Indian bowlers have a notorious reputation of pumping life into a batsman even at his lowest ebb. If there is one man in dire need of some typical Indian bowling hospitality, it is Hashim Amla. Surprisingly, the great run accumulator failed to make a mark in the T20 and ODI series despite his colleagues piling on the misery on the opposition.
As the last leg of this long tour gets under way with the commencement of the Test series, the right-hander’s form is pivotal to his team’s success in the final four matches. With a highest score of 37 so far on this tour, the Proteas’ Test skipper will hope to make amends in the five-dayers.
The 32-year-old hasn’t registered a three-figure score in Tests in 2015, with 63 against the West Indies being his highest score. When India last toured South Africa, Amla wasn’t prolific either with a top score of 36. His last hundred against India came at the Centurion in 2010, as Amla’s silken touch fetched him 140 of the best runs one could hope to compile on a not so easy batting track.
However, Amla’s Test record in India has been nothing short of a dream. He made his debut in whites at the home of Indian cricket – Eden Gardens – way back in 2004. Amla didn’t make a striking impact, scoring 24 and 2, but the all-round batting technique he possessed was there for all to see.
Though none doubted his class and caliber, a trend was beginning to unravel as Amla’s Test career progressed.
He wasn’t converting his starts into big scores on the sub-continent wickets. On his first tour in Asia after the Kolkata debut, Amla scored just 69 runs with a top score of 40 from four innings against Sri Lanka. Muttiah Muralitharan twice dismissed Amla, then batting at number four.
A year later in Pakistan, Amla showed marginal improvement with 98 runs in four outings and a top score of 71. By now, he had moved up one place in the batting order. This also meant facing the mercurial Mohammad Asif relatively early in the innings. The pacer didn’t allow Amla to flourish, getting the better of him on two occasions.
Similar problems plagued Amla’s game in 2008 as well when the Saffers toured Bangladesh. In the one-off Test at Dhaka, veteran left-arm spinner Mohammad Rafique dismissed him in both innings. With a top score of 46, Amla had failed himself yet again in the sub-continent.
Four years after earning his first Test cap, Amla had scored only three tons – all against New Zealand and more worrying, none outside the comfort of his home country.
Interestingly, Amla hadn’t toured New Zealand, England or Australia until then. He had been either playing at home or in the sub-continent. Having garnered enough experience of playing on these very different surfaces, the battled-hardened and nous-heavy Amla was now ready to replicate in Chennai what he was capable of at the Centurion.
Amla’s return to India in 2008 was as good as it was glorious. In the series opener, he treated the MA Chidambaram Stadium spectators to one of the finest Test match hundreds they could have hoped for. His imperious knock of 159 was his first outside South Africa. Amla followed it up two more well-crafted fifties in that series.
Two years later in 2010, Amla arrived in India having built a reputation of being a potential all-time great. What he dished out on that tour will perhaps go down, as the most dominant batting show by a visiting batsman.
Hungry for big runs, Amla devoured the Indian bowling with scores of 253*, 114 and 123* in his three outings. He was a picture of concentration and technique, virtually immovable from the crease in that series.
Since then, the right-hander has emerged as dominant force in Tests with tons against the best bowling attacks. Critically, he has converted his weakness of not scoring big tons into his great strength.
Amla does not tear into opposition bowling attacks. His is content to wear them down, session by session, batting with monotonous surety. That is Amla's remarkably unique quality. He makes death look beautiful. Death of a bowler's spirit.
Amla belongs to a rare batting breed, almost apologetic about hitting a cricket ball too hard. He is a cross between Joe Root and Cheteshwar Pujara. His game couples Root's shot making prowess with Pujara's immense concentration and he exhibits that with unadulterated elegance.
Though he is often overshadowed by AB de Villiers, Amla is by no means a side act. As the South African tour stretches into its most important phase, Amla's threat looms large over the Indian bowlers.
The tremendous hype around De Villiers, could give the master craftsman in Amla an ideal platform to blossom. Irrespective of the outcome of this series, Amla batting in full flow could give fans across the world another opportunity to marvel at one of cricket's great technicians in conditions that some of the best players have failed to conquer.