I am a huge fan of former Indian batting stylist VVS Laxman; so much so that I often view other batsmen through his image. Most are nothing like him. Some, like David Warner and Chris Gayle, wonderful timers though they can be, are more clubbers of the cricket ball than caressers, and so are Laxman’s polar opposites. Others, like Marlon Samuels and Rohit Sharma, possess a measure of the elegance Laxman was known for but little of his back-to-the-wall fortitude.
The player that comes closest to his likeness is Hashim Amla. South Africa’s test captain is, of course, a much more relentless accumulator of runs than Laxman, but he bears the stamp of undoubted class and the inclination to score difficult runs that were the Indian’s hallmark. Both are gifted with extraordinary wrists. To see Amla flick to leg balls that should legitimately be sent through the offside is to recall Laxman, or his spiritual forerunner, Mohammad Azharuddin.
There was some controversy surrounding Amla’s 2004 ascension to the South African test side. The debate centred on him being what was referred to as a “quota” pick, as if attempts at redressing decades of unfair treatment were an undesirable thing. But let’s say his selection was an instance of affirmative action; what do those who opposed it then have to say now that Amla is number three in tests and number two in ODIs in the ICC rankings?
Beginning his international career slowly, Amla was dropped after just three tests. Making his return 15 months later, however, he took 149 off the New Zealanders in Cape Town, and the selectors have not found reason to leave him out since. Amla averages 52.78 with 23 hundreds from 82 tests, his highest score being his monumental match-winning 311* against England at The Kia Oval. His ODI average is even higher, 56.72 from 111 matches. His 159 at Sydney against Ireland in CWC2015 made him the fastest player to 20 ODI hundreds. His speedy 38 against Pakistan – made with nine fours from only 27 deliveries– landed him, for a short time, at the top of the current tournament’s run-making pile – 295 runs in five matches.
But his remarkable records are only half the story. Many of us are drawn to the sheer artistry of his batting. No batsman playing today wields his blade with the relaxed grace of the South African right-hander. Supple wrists permit the kind of manoeuvrability that marks him as one of the leading piercer of gaps in the outfield, a quality that allows him a near 360-degree scoring range. An Amla innings, whether he makes 20 or 200, is always worth the time, for while there is nothing really flashy about his strokeplay, there is a polish and an economy of movement that sets him apart.
South Africa was chasing 98 to beat New Zealand in Hamilton in 2011-12. Amla joined captain Graeme Smith in the middle when the score was five and soon reeled off three of the most picturesque cover drives you could ever hope to see in an over from Chris Martin. I particularly recall the timing, the high left elbow, and the halted follow-through, pose held just long enough to give photographers ample time to capture a picture worthy of a batting instruction manual. Whatever flicker of hope New Zealand had of forcing a stirring fight back must have been extinguished at the end of that over.
Amla was on 25 at Centurion Park last December when West Indies pacer Kemar Roach went past his defensive bat with a peach of a ball that delivered a glancing blow to his offstump. The bail rose, but then fell right back in place and the batsman survived. Later, when Marlon Samuels came on to try and test him with his gentle off-breaks, the Jamaican, probably lamenting their earlier misfortune as well as acknowledging Amla’s record and control at the crease, could be heard telling his teammates they should remember his warning that Amla was the most difficult batsman to dislodge in international cricket. Many of them might have felt that accolade rightly belonged to their colleague Shivnarine Chanderpaul, but I’m sure they appreciated the sentiment, especially since the batsman went on to a mammoth 208.
There is a view – one I have some time for – that the T20 game has removed some of the sophistication from batting. It seems somewhat logical that as big hitting has come to the fore, batsmen are becoming less reliant on qualities such as timing, precision and defence – defence in cricket’s briefest form being more the concern of the bowler rather than the batsman. Amla is therefore not a likely fit for this version. As a matter of fact it was thought he was not suited to the fifty-over game either, and never made his ODI debut until more than three years after his first test appearance. Today, he is one of the game’s most effective 50-over batsmen, giving the South African top order an enviable level of stability.
An uncanny aptitude for threading the gaps means that Amla, more than most of today’s bludgeoners, has benefitted substantially from the new fielding restrictions. Used as an opener in this format, he finds the boundary with ease and without violence, often maintaining a scoring rate that would satisfy the most belligerent player.
The eyes of the cricket world are now trained on the World Cup being contested in Australia and New Zealand. Most of the fans will be focused on the big and adventurous hitters like David Warner, Chris Gayle, and Brendon McCullum. But many will marvel at the effortlessness of Amla’s artistry. With all the changes in batting that the game is experiencing, may his methods last long.