South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 5th day January 6, 2016

From crushed to content: Amla unburdens himself

A mid-series change of captain is never ideal, but with Hashim Amla having rediscovered his form and South Africa having regained some pride it could work out well for the team
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Amla resigns South Africa captaincy

The Hashim Amla who called his men in from the middle with half-an-hour's play left on the fourth day was neither the same Amla who addressed the media four days before, nor the same Amla who spoke to them 24 hours later at the conclusion of the match. The first Amla was crushed after his team sank to a fourth defeat in six Tests, the last Amla was content after he stepped down from the captaincy despite a redeeming knock with the bat and a solid team showing, the Amla in-between was a man who had some of his confidence back. 

On the changing room balcony that afternoon, Amla looked a man in control. He was calling his men back even though they were behind England's mammoth 629 for 6 on the scoreboard but in front in their own minds. They felt that way because after their recent struggles - they could not get past 214 in nine previous innings - they had almost trebled that in one go. Their out of form senior core had made runs and they realised they could compete again. Amla realised he could compete again. 

He must have known that with little over a day left in the game there would probably not be enough time to force a result but he was willing to try. He knew that the only thing that could really happen was that the next day would be wasted as the opposition saw out the session or that his side could seize some mental advantage in a series they are chasing. And it seemed in that moment of clarity, he also affirmed in his own mind that it would not be his side to lead any longer. 

In the aftermath of what was, as they say, a "winning draw" for South Africa, a satisfied Amla stepped down after spending the last two weeks, since the end of the tour of India, wondering whether he should. "I was thinking about it but I wasn't quite ready at that stage," he said. 

So what changed?

The only evidence we have is what took place on the field. South Africa fought their way back from defeat in Durban and a massive England total at Newlands to end the first innings on par with England and give them some jitters in the second. There were times on the fifth day when it looked likely South Africa could push for a win. With what you could call their third-choice bowling attack - Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott were all injured - that they had England 85 for 4 and then 116 for 6 was a victory in itself. 

What all that means is that Amla wanted to leave the team in a better place from the one he found it in. In result terms he did not because under him South Africa have gone for their longest streak of matches without a win: eight. But in every other way, he did, because under him South Africa have confronted the two major issues of transition and transformation and now seem to be emerging from both of them with hope for the future.

In personnel terms, South Africa are still looking for the candidates to take over from Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis with the issue of the opener and the allrounder remaining up in the air, but they appear to have solved the wicketkeeping question by entrusting Quinton de Kock with the role. They also seem to be embracing the need for change in terms of the make-up of their team that is not based on cricketing reasons, a situation unique to South Africa because of its segregated past. Transformation (which must be understood for its positive reasons and not its negative connotations) is working and the Newlands match provided the most compelling proof. 

Temba Bavuma became the first black African batsman to score a century for South Africa and the moment resonated with everyone including Amla. "Temba is a very good example for us. The way he batted in this game was very inspirational even for guys like me. The intent he showed. I wish when I was his age, I showed that type of confidence that he showed," Amla said. 

Hashim Amla can now focus on what he does best: scoring runs © AFP

That was not the only thing Amla could relate to. For the first time, he spoke about his own experiences as a player of colour and the challenges involved in overcoming perceptions. "Temba and I have very similar careers. The first time you play Test cricket everybody doubts you because of the colour of your skin. Even though you've got the stats to back it up domestically, everybody doubts you for various reasons." 

He experienced exactly the same thing but unlike Bavuma, did not enjoy as much support from within the system. Now, Amla can see that has changed. "The way he has played for me is a testament to the environment we have in the team. Everybody in the team knows how talented he is and potential he has. Because he has done it before. It's not like he just came into the team from nowhere. I was extremely happy, very proud, a goosebump moments.

"Personally, I know the pressure players of colour go through when they first come into the set up, especially in our country. It was emotional for a lot of us, a lot of us felt it was a victory for the Proteas in a sense that the team environment is in a really good space. I hope I played a small part in his success and I'm glad that he quietened a lot of people down." 

In seeing that, Amla realised that being a leader was about more than being a captain."I've always felt as senior players we've got a role to play and that it is vitally important to create an environment for people of all colours of skin. I am going to try and continue that," he said. "Now maybe I will have more time, because I am not worried about bowling changes and this and that, to invest in the younger guys." 

So South Africa can expect a more forthright Amla, an Amla who can make a statement like: "You don't look like me in this world without being firm on what you want to do," and an Amla that is free of the technicalities of captaincy? They probably want that. 

Amla was criticised for the decisions he made in the field, like taking a slip out when the strike bowlers were steaming in, for his bowling choices, such as not giving Morne Morkel the second new ball, and sometimes for his overly defensive field placings. Some of the naysayers came from afar, but others were former players including the former captain Smith. Amla tried to take it all in his stride. 

"Criticism is never nice to receive. But you tend to get a thick skin and know which criticism has value in it and which doesn't have value in it," he said. "I tried to take whatever good I've seen and consulted with those around me about where I can improve. I would like to believe the recent criticism hasn't played a role in changing my mind."

The only thing that may have made him stay on was a sense of duty but the stand-in, AB de Villiers, possess that in bucketloads. De Villiers has been described as the ultimate team man, who will do anything if asked. In this series alone, he has gone from keeper to overworked to captain. He probably wants the last one most. De Villiers was deeply disappointed when he lost out to Amla in June 2014 and this is his opportunity to show that he wants the job permanently. 

Russell Domingo has described de Villiers as the "frontrunner" for the post when it comes under consideration between the end of the England series and South Africa's next Test outing against New Zealand in August but there are other possibilities.

Faf du Plessis is the T20 skipper with an impressive tactical acumen but needs to find consistent form, Dean Elgar has been touted as a possibility and there is the outside chance of a comeback from Smith, who has hinted at it recently. Whoever it is, Amla has promised his services. For now, he just wants to bat. 

There is a reason why the Amla who called his men in from the middle with half-an-hour's play left on the fourth day was different to the Amla who addressed the media four days before and the one who spoke to them 24 hours later. The first Amla was worried, the second Amla was carefree and the Amla in-between had just been unburdened.

"It's a bit of relief because now I don't have to worry about winning the toss or not." Or about anything else a captain has on his plate.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Beertjie on January 13, 2016, 22:24 GMT

    @Gujratwalla, having read the late Mike Marqusee's classic "Anyone but England," I think there may be a substantial minority even in the UK who do not support dear old Blighty. Of course, the English prefer to think such sentiments originate in feelings of envy rather than dislike of certain characteristics. So be it.

  • Sammy on January 8, 2016, 16:45 GMT

    Amla is a thoughtful man; a gentleman who carries huge responsiblities on his shoulders. For SA of Indian descent he is a role model and object of great pride for all coloured SAfricans. He encourages other SAs of colour to strive to be the best that they can. For Muslims the world over, he is the perfect example of what a good Muslim should be. Ever humble, taking his achievments in stride and handling himself with grace and dignity at all times. Not easy being a role model for 2 billion Muslims and both he and Moyeen Ali are doing it proudly and well.

  • Fatboydrunk on January 8, 2016, 13:02 GMT

    So I wonder if AB will be able to take SA back to the top of the Test rankings.... I very much doubt it

  • gujratwalla on January 8, 2016, 11:47 GMT

    @captainhansie. I think it is better not to drag politics in cricket.You view might be correct but the coloureds and natives of South Africa also have cause to resent the Apartheid years....now the nation is united so lets strengthen the unity.On the other hand i doubt whether the British are liked anywhere except in the UK!Stiff upper lip and all.!

  • Cricinfouser on January 8, 2016, 10:45 GMT

    As always brilliant article

  • captainhansie on January 8, 2016, 9:58 GMT

    AB de Villiers is an Afrikaner. The last team/country an Afrikaner wants to lose to is the English. There is history there. I know it seems bizarre, but history still rankles with some people. One half of my family faced the fate of the Boers in the war. Livestock killed, farm burnt to the ground, exile for the head of the family in St Helena and concentration camp for the rest where some died. I don't really care. It's history to me, but there are families who carry this like the holocaust. You might think a test match is meant to be entertaining or a sport, but this is WAR! If it were anyone other than Hashim Amla resigning with the purest intentions at heart I'd be angry.

  • burn_addict on January 8, 2016, 7:39 GMT

    this article is beautiful! can I take it out for a drink? On a serious note: I think this decision will make Amla more dangerous with the bat. When he concetrates solely on his batting, he's hard to dislodge. I remember watching him when he made his 311* in 2012 to break the SA record, and everyone was waiting to see if he was gonna make it. I wondered: Does Amla even realise he's about to do something special? Because when he's batting he's SO in the zone, that he probably realizes after he gets to 50, 100, 150 or 200 and he hears the applause, that hes achieved a milestone and he goes: "Oh, Ive reached that"!!

  • Beertjie on January 8, 2016, 7:26 GMT

    As a South African of Indian heritage I was pleased about the Amla era, but disappointed in his leadership and decision-making, so immediately AB is the best choice. @LANDL47, you are always writing about what the SAf team will look like down the line and about "rebuilding for the next few years." I'm an Australian follower and supporter I'm always considering what the team will look like a year, or two or three down the line. My guess for SAf is much less informed, but for here is my shot for what it's worth: Elgar, Markram, Rossouw, Bavuma, Miller, de Kock, Dill, Rabada, Viljoen, Dane Piedt/Tarbraiz Shamsi, Beuran Hendricks.

  • burn_addict on January 8, 2016, 6:33 GMT

    @KHINK Its important to know your facts b4 you criticise. Dont you think?

  • Cricinfouser on January 8, 2016, 5:28 GMT

    I sincerely hope Sri Lanka captain can rise like this and allow selectors to find a better captain. Despite losing by just 3 runs to Kiwis Dinesh showed better leadership.

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