November 26, 2013

Amla's Irfan problem

The South African has been one of the best one-day batsmen in the last five years, but now a tall left-armer is making a dent in his impressive stats

Hashim Amla has been dismissed five times in eight ODIs by Mohammad Irfan © AFP

I have always felt that rather than trying to rank cricketers individually, it's better to separate the contents of a generation by tiers. Over the five-year period from 2008 to 2012, there was a very clear top tier in ODI cricket. Only five batsmen averaged over 50 during this time (Amla, de Villiers, Kohli, Chanderpaul and Dhoni). While basketball has the 50-40-90 club to identify its greatest shooters, modern ODI cricket could have had the 50-90 club, which only contained Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, who are up there statistically during this period.

But both of them have regressed this year. De Villiers has had a reasonable year, although he "only" averages 45. For Amla, the decline has been starker - his average in 2013 is nearly half of what it was pre-2013. On the surface the reasons for the decline seem obvious. A majority of South Africa's games this year have been against Sri Lanka and Pakistan - two of the better bowling attacks in the world, and two teams that still have quality spin attacks, which South African batsmen have historically struggled against.

Except that isn't really the story. De Villiers was the Player of the Series against Pakistan earlier this year in both the Test and the ODI series, and he played Saeed Ajmal better than anyone not named Kumar Sangakkara. Amla, meanwhile, has generally played the Pakistan spinners well, and missed most of the Sri Lanka series after scoring well in the first two games.

Perhaps in the case of de Villiers the lack of support around him (without Jacques Kallis, and with an underperforming middle- and top order) has affected him - though not by much, it would seem.

For Amla the situation is more extreme. A cursory look at the stats reveals why he has struggled. He has never really recovered from an average (by his standards) series against Pakistan back in March - where he had only one 50-plus score in five innings. But rather than the spinners, it has been another arrow in Pakistan's quiver that has done for Amla.

Before 2013, he had been dismissed only three times in 62 innings by left-arm pacers. This year those numbers read seven times in 18 innings. All seven have been against Pakistan.

Perhaps most significant has been his battle with Mohammad Irfan, who has got him out five times in eight ODIs (no other bowler in the world has dismissed Amla more than twice in his career). It's not that Amla is struggling against a specific type of bowler, it's quite simply that he has been struggling against Irfan. It may not be as one-sided as Hafeez-Steyn, but it is interesting how much a newcomer has punished one of the best batsmen in the world.

Perhaps it is better to praise Irfan than to question Amla in this case. Within 11 months he has gone from being a wild card being given a last chance to the leader of the Pakistan pace attack. He's the fourth-highest wicket-taker in ODI cricket this year and he hasn't done it in the way most imagined he would. He was originally presented as a freak who would target chins and ribcages like an Australian. Instead, his intelligence and resilience have stood out. In one year he understood a bowling lesson Stuart Broad took five years to figure out (and one that Umar Gul still hasn't): that just because you are tall doesn't mean you have to bowl short of a length all the time. Of his five ODI dismissals against Amla only once was it with a short ball. Irfan has joined the Thankless Task force with Ajmal and Junaid Khan in trying to cover up the sins of his batsmen.

And this is what has made the series between South Africa and Pakistan great, or rather makes most of Pakistan's one-day series great. Not for them the hits and giggles of pyjama cricket. They remain the last bastion in that they believe the most engaging match is one where there is a contest between bat and ball. For that to happen, they continue to churn out one quality bowler after another, and make sure that any decent batsman who comes up is treated in a way that sabotages his career. Long live the low-scoring ODI.

Finally, on a separate note, I planned to begin this article with a tale of Jonathan Trott's batting woes - a continuation of the English summer that he had. But in light of the news from Monday, it felt inopportune, to say the least. I also remembered an article I wrote during the summer. How often, in trying to create neutrality by treating players as subjects, a writer can ignore the human elements - something as grave as what Trott reportedly suffers from.

Mental issues are a topic I feel inadequate to write about and I want to avoid being part of the "eejit-brigade" that considers this an effeminate trait, or looks at it as an opportunity to praise their own heroes (within hours of the news I had read tweets about Misbah, Dhoni and Sachin being more "brave" or "manly" or "mentally stronger" than Trott). Instead, I will redirect you to two pieces on the subject: by Iain O'Brien over a year ago, and by former England international footballer Stan Collymore.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • GAURAV on November 28, 2013, 6:44 GMT

    Its all about culture. In India all heroes are batsmen. Young people think that being batsmen will earn you name and fame. In pakistan i see there heroes are fast bowlers, so every one wants to bowl faster than the other. Its sad that undivided India had both fast bowlers and best batsmen. Now batsmen remain at this side of border and fast bolwers went that side of border. Anytime India or pakistan wins, its the same team that wins in some way.

  • Dummy4 on November 28, 2013, 6:11 GMT

    @ThatsJustCricket : You havea very valid point, as the Indians say we Pakistani have a 'Factory' of fast bowlers. With Bilawal Bhatti playing his first ODI a few days ago, at the mere age of 22 and bowling at 145 kph we honetyl don't know where to put him when Irfan will return. However the same can be said about Indian Batsmen, the moment Gambhir and Sehwag left they were replaced by Dhawan & Pujara. The think A. Rahane is a wonderful batsmen but its just too competitive in India to play for the team...and I always say that the Batsmen who are sitting out in India right now i.e. Gambhir, Rahane, Sehwag would definitely be in the Pak team now in eveyr match...the same way Wahab Riaz, Aizaz Cheema and a few other bowlers would always make the Indian team but are nto good enough to play for Pakistan. As it stands though ODI has now become a Batsmen's game and the team with the better Batsmen always fare better.

  • Syed on November 28, 2013, 4:02 GMT

    Spot on, and today without Irfan, Hashim scored 98 but of no use.

  • Dummy4 on November 27, 2013, 21:14 GMT

    @ThatsJustCricket: I am not aware of if at young and teenage, boys in India use Tennis Ball tapped with and bowl full pace. All I know this is how bowlers bowl in street cricket and then they go for proper bowling. By that time, they have developed the lessons of where to pitch and how much pace to put into tapped tennis ball.

    Believe me, wickets fly much far when they bowl and hit the timbers with tapped tennis ball.

  • I on November 27, 2013, 13:23 GMT

    Well made point about the lesson of bowling short for Broad and Gul. It's astounding that Broad took so long to figure this out, and I think Gul is now incapable of bowling anything but short and wide. Which is a shame in 2010, he was THE form fast bowlers, all through pitching it up

  • Ahmer on November 27, 2013, 5:55 GMT

    Great article. I think one thing you pointed out here which really separates the good from the great in Pakistani bowlers is how quickly they learn. Both Waqar and Wasim were very intelligent, as was Imran. Gul seems to only know how to find the right lengths in T20s consistently, suggesting that it could be concentration more than anything. Amir was extremely smart too (that opening over to Dilshan in the T20 final) but Asif was perhaps the wiliest I have ever seen. A lot of the lesser bowlers either lack the intelligence or like Rana get too over eager with their skills.

  • Jon on November 26, 2013, 22:14 GMT

    I don't think it will be only Amla that will have issues with Irfan. He is over 7ft, bowls a good length and nips the ball a bit, sometimes he is unplayable and IMO he has the capabilities to be one of the best quick bowlers in the world. His fitness record will always count against him I fear.

  • Milind on November 26, 2013, 19:04 GMT

    I would not characterize SL as one of the better bowling attacks in the world. May be time is catching up with Amla - no one can go on performing well indefinitely at the highest level.

  • Nasser on November 26, 2013, 18:26 GMT

    Excellent and very interesting article; Irfan is a very CLEVER bolwler and thus shows that education and intelligence are two seperate things entirely. With education, you can read more and hence increase awareness, but you need intelligence ( and right attitude)TO FIGURE THINGS OUT and QUICKLY.

    And no need to pity Trott. He hit the ground running in international cricket and has a fantastic and CONSISTENT average, playing anywhere in the world. Not like the Tendulkars of this world who failed most miserably both in England and then Australia when needed the most. No body expected century in each innings from Tendulkar but a bit of fight would not have gone missing. I rate Gavaskar higher (refer to WI visit 1976, for example).

  • Suman on November 26, 2013, 17:56 GMT

    Being an indian fan, I can only look across the border and wish if we could unearth one Irfan, let alone a truckload of pace bowlers like Pak does so easily. I guess, the Pak fans would equally long for the batting resources we keep churning out. One can only wonder what a team we could put on field if the two countries were not separated.

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