Amla's big chance
Not since South Africa's readmission into international cricket has there been so much speculation about who their next Test captain will be. What appeared to be a two-horse race never was. CSA CEO Haroon Lorgat suggested as much, when he last week urged the selectors to look beyond the running favourites. The selectors have more to do, though.
The present focus may be on the next Test captain but what will it mean for the leadership in the other formats of the game? What complicates the matter further is that past decisions have done the selectors no favours and the solution, or lack thereof, could have a positive or negative impact, not only on one or two careers but the team as a whole. The whole process could be a very simple or complicated one for them, depending on who they nominate and the reasons for this. South African cricket is a complex animal and those who finally make the decision may not necessarily make it for cricketing reasons only.
The two obvious contenders were AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, who presently captain in the 50-over and T20 format respectively. De Villiers has for some time now been the popular choice to succeed Graeme Smith and one feels he should have nailed down the job by now, but the fact that he hasn't tells a story in itself. Du Plessis was not convincing in the recent T20 World Cup in Bangladesh, where his stubbornness in defending team strategy against popular opinion did him no favours at all. Lorgat's statements may have been in light of the doubt surrounding both candidates but I do believe it was a warning that another contender had been in the fray all along.
It is now reliably confirmed that Hashim Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis will present to the selectors their vision for the future of South African cricket and why they should be captain. Amla made it clear in the past that he wanted no leadership role but his change of heart has been very good news for South African cricket.
Added to the selectors' task, and one just as important, is that they need to decide on whether to keep the status quo of having the captaincy split three ways or do they look to change this? It was under Gary Kirsten's watch that South Africa went the route of three different captains. Granted, Graeme Smith was not playing much limited-overs cricket then, so Kirsten had no choice but to look at other possibilities. He decided to split the captaincy in the limited-overs formats between de Villiers and du Plessis. Odd at the time as one would have thought that de Villiers, who was the more senior and more established player, would be asked to do both. One can only surmise that Kirsten was either unsure of the long-term candidate and was giving both the opportunity to prove themselves, or he wanted to decrease de Villiers's workload.
Whatever the reason was, it's important now, with the rebuilding phase South African cricket is going through, that the leadership position not be fragmented as players would prefer to identify with one coach and one captain. It also makes no sense to do this when all three candidates play across all three formats and will for some time to come.
So who is the best man to do all three jobs? I don't believe it is de Villiers or du Plessis. While they may not make bad captains they will not make memorable ones. They are too similar in their thinking and approach and doubt exists about their tactical feel and nous for the game. Another reason is not a cricketing one. They first played schoolboy cricket together. While de Villiers had a brilliant start to his international career, du Plessis battled for some time to get beyond first-class cricket. When he eventually broke into the international squad, a healthy competitive relationship between the two was immediately evident. However, I do fear this may become strained in the captaincy race. Both have made it quite clear that they want to be the top dog and I don't believe the loser will accept this graciously.
It would make things so much easier if one was clearly the better option but this is not so and the result could well be an unnecessary dynamic that will not be good for the team or their own games. Why potentially have this, when you have in Amla just as good if not a better option? It will be a massive blow for both de Villiers and du Plessis. One will go from incumbent captain and potential Test captain to a vice-captain at best. One will lose out altogether.
There is one more step to go and that's the most important of all. The overriding say in the appointment of South Africa's captain will be the board's. It would come as no surprise that their brief to the selectors is that they would favour a captain of colour. This could very well be why Amla has made himself available, and he may even have been persuaded to do so. CSA has made no bones about it, and this has been reflected in recent coaching appointments, that transformation and political correctness are higher on their agenda than ever before.
South Africa are yet to have a captain of colour (save for Ashwell Prince, who captained in two Tests) and the majority of those who are party to the decision will lobby hard for it. I will go so far as to say that Amla already has the job. I recall the late Hylton Ackerman telling me in 2002 that Amla, who was then part of his national academy squad, would go on to be a great player and future captain of South Africa. There was no one more knowledgeable on the game than Ackerman.
Personally, I believe Amla's appointment can only be good for South African cricket. If I read him correctly, he would be everything but the tough-talking, in-your-face stereotype captain we see too much of these days. A quietly spoken and deeply religious man, he might bring a calmness and serenity to a cricketing culture that has too often tripped up on its inability to think clearly and intelligently under pressure, and an ego that still refuses to accept and recognise this. I hope he will stay true to himself and the very image that he effortlessly and genuinely portrays. It would make for such a refreshing change for South Africa.
Some believe that he will not be strong enough to impose himself both on and off the field. A man who plays the way he does and so successfully, has to have a determination and steeliness that can only prove that opinion wrong. Not enough is known of his ability to inspire those around him, or whether he will leave everyone respectful of his tactical feel and appreciation for the game but I trust Ackerman's opinion on this. I look forward to seeing how Amla goes about his business and so too will the whole cricketing world because he will create that sort of interest.
Daryll Cullinan played 70 Tests for South Africa between 1993 and 2001