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Hashim Amla's tests of greatness

His place in the pantheon is secure, and as he's emerged from his worst trough in a decade, there could be one more chapter added for South Africa's veteran

Liam Brickhill
Liam Brickhill
Hashim Amla acknowledges his century, Somerset v Hampshire, Specsavers Championship, Division One, Taunton, 4th day, May 14, 2018

Hashim Amla acknowledges his century  •  Getty Images

The most ODI hundreds by a South African. The first South African to score a triple century in Test cricket. The fastest batsman to 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 runs in ODI cricket. Hashim Amla has, by any measure, achieved greatness on the cricket field. But, such is the nature of the game, it is not enough merely to achieve greatness - as a player ages and draws closer to the end of a career it must be proved repeatedly. There is something almost brutal in it, the old alpha always being tested by those who have come after him, to see if he's still good enough. Until one day he isn't.
That day has not yet come for Amla, but depending on how broadly one looks at it, a batsman is only as good - or as bad - as their last innings, their last series, even their last year. And after coming off a bad year, during which he averaged 23.36 in 10 Tests before Pakistan arrived, Amla has turned things around, averaging 52.25 across three Tests and 53.50 - at a strike rate higher than Faf du Plessis, Reeza Hendricks and Rassie van der Dussen - in five ODIs against a Pakistani bowling attack that is one of the best in world cricket.
He's clearly still got it, whatever 'it' is, and Amla has, over the next few weeks, the opportunity against a wounded Sri Lankan side to continue playing himself back into the sort of form that has brought him so many past glories. He's come out of his worst dip in form in a decade, and with a possibly career-defining World Cup campaign looming, his resurgence is coming at just the right time.
Two months ago, Amla was so out of touch that he was dropped by Durban Heat after his second duck of the Mzansi Super League. He had muddled through the tournament in the batting doldrums, cobbling together 24 runs in seven innings as bowlers repeatedly threatened his edge, his front pad and his stumps. He was also struggling for full fitness, having broken a finger during an equally dry run through the Caribbean Premier League in September - an injury that hampered his ability to train as he would like to and took longer than expected to heal.
In his very next innings after that fateful MSL duck at Centurion, for Cape Cobras in the 4-Day Franchise series, Amla walked to the wicket at No. 3 after brothers Janneman and Pieter Malan had laid a platform with a 124-run opening stand, and walked back off again almost immediately afterwards when he was strangled down the leg side first ball by Sisanda Magala. It was just the sort of rotten luck that strikes when a player is short of form.
"In my mind, Hash is, I suppose, like Cook from England. People always talk about him not scoring runs but he's still the best that we've got in the team."
Faf du Plessis
Usually one of the calmest heads on the field, Amla must have felt some pressure when he walked out in the second innings of that franchise match, seemingly unable to buy a run having been out twice in four balls with murmurs about his decline growing. The set-up was almost identical in the second dig, Amla coming out to bat at first drop after the Malans had once again set things up with a 130-run opening partnership. The proposition was a tricky one, with just nine overs remaining in the day and the shadows lengthening across St. George's Park when he walked in. For 12 long deliveries he clung to the crease on zero, seeing off a fired-up Lutho Sipamla and a probing Basheeru-Deen Walters before a push through the covers off Jon-Jon Smuts' left-arm spin got him off what could have been a third - and possibly terminal - successive duck.
Amla returned the next morning and laced the second ball he faced through cover point off the back foot with his trademark sprung-coiled grace. The Amla of old was back, and more runs flowed from the drive and the pull as he batted for over three hours for a 61 that pressed home Cobras' advantage and helped set up a 37-run win. It was an innings played far from the limelight in an empty stadium in a windy city, but it was a vital one for Amla and marked the start of his return to form.
His touch was back, but it wasn't easy. Less than a week later, Amla walked out with South Africa 0 for 1 in a tricky second innings chase under grey skies and Pakistan's quicks in the midst of a fearsome opening burst. What followed were vital runs in desperate circumstances, Amla's 63 seeing his team home and sending them 1-0 up to set the tone for the series.
They were, captain Faf du Plessis confirmed, "very important" runs for both Amla and South Africa. "It's very important for Hash as well, I think, not just in red ball cricket," du Plessis said. "It's important for him to score some runs and just relax a bit. Because runs is runs, whether it's white ball or red ball. Hopefully it will be a good stepping stone for him in a big season for us."
It was. After a quiet Newlands Test, Amla was at it again at the Wanderers, blunting Pakistan's attack from No. 3 and contributing vital runs to the cause in the second innings with his 71. Du Plessis had called Amla "our rock at number three" ahead of the series, and now the old veteran was once again adding substance to those words with runs in conditions purpose-suited to seam bowling, against the venom of Mohammad Amir and Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Now he seems to have turned a corner and in that regard any concerns du Plessis may have had about his team's elder statesman's form have been answered. Not that du Plessis had concerns to begin with, he insisted.
"No, not as yet," he said. "In my mind, Hash is, I suppose, like Cook from England. People always talk about him not scoring runs but he's still the best that we've got in the team. So yeah, certainly not even close to my mind. If it was possibly another season where Hash would have struggled then maybe next season I would have said something different, but not this season, no."
As if to remind everyone, if it was necessary, of how successful his career has been, Amla added another ODI milestone to his name with a 27th hundred in the format in the first ODI against Pakistan - the quickest ever, in terms of innings, to the mark, beating Virat Kohli's record by two innings.
A little of the gloss is taken off that particular ton by its circumstances, South Africa having pulled up short to register a dissonant 266 for 2, which appeared a scoreline from another age and indeed was the lowest ODI total for a side batting first and only losing two wickets since 1992. His knock, 108* off 120 balls, was in danger of making Amla look similarly anachronistic, and though he registered another fifty three innings later in the series, that likewise came in a match South Africa lost.
It's not the way he usually does things: 24 of his 27 ODI tons have come in South African wins, and his average when South Africa triumph in ODIs shoots up from a shade under 50 to 63.20.
Those are the sorts of returns South Africa will need from Amla if they are make a serious attempt at World Cup glory in three and a half months' time. That tournament will likely be the swansong of what has been an outstanding career, and Amla's performances during Pakistan's tour revealed, as Mark Nicholas put it, "both the influence of Father Time and a deep-rooted determination to overcome him."
Once he hit the summit, little has changed about Amla's game over the years. While his methods are once again bearing dividends, questions in the media are somewhat inevitable at this stage when things don't quite fall into place. Amla is simply of that age now, and time is running out on him as, ultimately, it runs out on all of us.
His runs against Pakistan will help. Any more dropped catches will not. Amla missed chances in the slips in both the Test and ODI series, and while a player dropping a catch is not necessarily a sign of anything other than a momentary lapse of concentration or execution, Amla is of a vintage where such lapses raise a flag.
"How do you want me to answer that?" asked his coach Ottis Gibson, when asked if the chances Amla has missed recently have caused him any worries. "It's not a concern. People drop catches all the time. It happens in cricket. He didn't go out there with the intention of dropping it. It just happens."
Players get older, powers wane and people retire. That also just happens. But for the runs he has scored this season, for his 18,418 international runs across formats, for his contribution as one half of the most prolific South African ODI batting pair in history, for his record in England (where he averages 56.73 in ODIs), Amla is a vital part of South Africa World Cup plans. How he performs at that tournament, and where he goes from there, will be down to is his will to succeed and his willingness to keep testing his own greatness.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town