January 9, 2009

New-look Amla breaks South Africa's No. 3 jinx

Hashim Amla made a slow start to his Test career, but over the last year he has grown immensely in stature

Hashim Amla: style, class, and some outstanding numbers as well © Getty Images

When he first made an appearance in international cricket, Hashim Amla seemed to be an overrated domestic cricketer with glaring faults in his technique that were likely to make him easy fodder for international bowlers: his back-lift was too high, the bat came down at an angle, and he committed himself onto the front foot too early, making him susceptible to the short deliveries. Over the first three years of his career, that assessment seemed spot on, as Amla struggled through 15 Tests, scoring only 714 runs at a mediocre average of 25.50. In 29 innings, only eight times did he go past 25, while 12 times he fell for single-digit scores. These numbers made one wonder if South Africa had made the right choice by not only giving him a place in the XI but also by entrusting to him the vital No. 3 slot.

Fast forward 12 months and version two of Hashim Amla is almost unrecognisable from the earlier one: the back-lift is still high, but instead of making him vulnerable, it has added a flourish and a regal touch to his batting; the class is evident from the amount of time he has to play his shots; and the front-foot movement is no longer as pronounced, leaving him beautifully balanced to play strokes off either foot and on either side of the wicket.

The numbers have taken care of themselves too: in 31 innings since November 2007, Amla has amassed more than twice the number of runs he did from his previous 29, with 13 fifty-plus scores. He has made the No. 3 spot his own, and has done it with panache in a side that has often lacked in its flair quotient.

Amla's career in two parts
Period Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
First 15 Tests 29 714 25.50 1/ 5
Next 19 Tests 31 1599 57.10 5/ 8
Career 60 2313 41.30 6/ 13

Once a shaky starter, Amla has improved considerably in that area: in his last 31 innings, only five times has he fallen for less than 10, while he has made at least 30 on 21 occasions. Where he could still improve further is in building on those starts: 16 times he has made between 30 and 99 during this period. On the Australian tour alone, he made more than 45 in four out of his five completed innings, but his highest score of the Test series was a mere 59.

Amla's range of scores
Period 0-9 10-29 30-49 50-99 100-plus
First 15 Tests 12 10 1 5 1
Last 19 Tests 5 5 8 8 5

Amla's rise is all the more heartwarming because he strengthens a position that has traditionally been a weak link in South African batting: in 341 Tests, their No. 3s have averaged less than those of every other top team bar New Zealand. (Remove Amla's numbers and South Africa drop below New Zealand as well.) Thanks to the likes of Brian Lara, Viv Richards and Rohan Kanhai, West Indies' No. 3s have been the most prolific, followed by the Australians, who've had Don Bradman, Ian Chappell, and now Ricky Ponting, to come in at the fall of an opener, but South Africa have had no such luminaries. It's also a position that has had little stability for them: while West Indies have used just 76 batsmen at No. 3 in 450 matches and India 77 in 427, South Africa have had 88 different batsmen for 341 Tests, which works out to less than four games per player.

Team-wise averages of No. 3s in Tests
Team Number of No.3s Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
West Indies 76 450 34,144 46.20 101/ 138
Australia 125 705 52,833 45.94 151/ 228
Sri Lanka 28 182 12,022 41.03 29/ 52
India 77 427 28,320 40.68 67/ 136
England 184 879 55,459 38.30 140/ 259
Pakistan 62 335 19,621 36.13 42/ 87
South Africa 88 341 19,653 34.23 36/ 106
New Zealand 77 348 20,144 34.20 42/ 88
Zimbabwe 15 83 4227 28.75 5/ 26
Bangladesh 13 59 3202 27.84 3/ 23

As the table below indicates, the opening and No. 4 slots have been more prolific for South Africa. Just 36 hundreds from 615 innings by No. 3s works out to a poor conversion of a century every 17 innings. So far, Amla has six in 49, which means a hundred every eight innings.

Position-wise batting averages for South Africa
Position Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Openers 1252 44,286 37.18 96/ 205
No. 3 615 19,653 34.23 36/ 106
No. 4 602 23,087 41.90 61/ 118
No. 5 589 18,177 33.47 37/ 89

Also, of those 88 South African players used, only six have batted at this slot for more than 20 innings. Even here, four of those six, including Jacques Kallis and Hansie Cronje, were more comfortable at other positions. Apart from Amla, only Jacques Rudolph was a specialist at three, batting there in 36 out of his 63 Test innings.

With 2172 runs in 49 innings, Amla is just 1070 runs short of becoming South Africa's highest run-getter at No. 3. The way he is going, though, his sights will be trained on much tougher goals.

No. 3s for South Africa in Tests (at least 20 innings at that slot)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Jacques Kallis 77 3242 49.12 9/ 15
Hashim Amla 49 2172 48.26 6/ 13
Jacques Rudolph 36 1428 46.06 4/ 5
Bruce Mitchell 23 860 39.09 1/ 8
Hansie Cronje 33 1076 37.10 3/ 3
Eric Rowan 21 665 35.00 0/ 5

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo