<
>

Amla's Irfan problem

Hashim Amla was dismissed for 3 in the first over 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.