Amla must find his Brearley

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

A bad joke could connect the fact that Australians mocked Mike Brearley as “The Ayatollah” for his bee swarm of a beard and the odd headgear he wore at the crease to the evidence that the former England captain and Hashim Amla are, in some ways, cut from the same kurta.

But another bad joke, Donald J. Trump, is not writing this article. So we won’t go there.

Besides, Amla is an exponentially better batsman than Brearley, who belongs to an era when cricketers were more often seen in armchairs than in athletic pursuit.

But, since July 2014, when he undertook his first test as SA’s captain, Amla has been required to be more than a fine player.

How, the concern was at the time, would someone as willfully detached from the madness of the modern world as he seemed to be find ways to live with the unfair pressures of the job: the pitiless public and press, the marketing monster, the audacious assumption that every South African is owed a piece of him?

Wonderfully well, it turns out. “You want to lose honourably and you want to win honourably as well,” was the perfect response to India claiming victory in the test series in Nagpur last month on a pitch that veered as close to cheating as Trump’s second initial should stand for Jerk.

Russell Domingo tried to take the edge off all that when he said, “We are not a team that blames pitches. We are not a team that says we lost the toss four times in a row and it was important but it was tough to bat on those pitches.

“We did lose the toss four times in a row but we have got no qualms – we expected those type of wickets. We can’t depend on the toss, and in tough conditions we just weren’t good enough.”

There isn’t much Amla can do about the archaic way cricket starts the game, but few seem to have wondered how he would fare at the core task of leading.

Personalities great and small roam the dressingroom, and it has been to SA’s advantage that, historically, they have had an even bigger personality at hand to round them up and point them in the right direction.

From Kepler Wessels to Graeme Smith, there has been no doubting who was in charge. Would Amla measure up on that scale? And would he be able to tell nuance from no-brainers?

Which is where a comparison with Brearley might stick, with particular reference to Amla’s view on honour in winning and losing. It was the Englishman, after all, who said, “You have to reply to criticism with your intellect, not your ego.”

There is no doubting Amla’s commitment to his team and his role within it, his sincerity of purpose as a captain, nor his intelligence. There’s more than a brush with Brearley in all that.

Performance will always trump personality. So once the runs begin flowing for Amla, who scored just 118 of them in seven test innings in India, all the questions will be answered.

Even without that, his influence can be seen in the fact that India’s suits were quietly agog at a SA squad that was the first they could remember not to issue a single complaint.

But the tour also told us Amla is about as far behind Brearley as a captain as Brearley will always be behind Amla as a batsman.

Cricket on the subcontinent is about getting the little things right. Things like not corroding a frontline spinner’s confidence by bowling him later than a purveyor of hop, skip and prayer, or not setting a field for a new batsman that would make more sense once he had been at the crease for an hour.

In SA’s emphatically pneumatic conditions, such subtleties count for little. In close to the bone places like India there is no cushioning from them.

Now, with England on our doorstep, is hardly the time to raise such issues. Or is it the best time?

“It’s important for us to back Hashim as captain,” selection convenor Linda Zondi said his week. “We shouldn’t panic, but we also know that there’s a lot at stake. And we are not OK with losing.”

Neither is Amla, Brearley, nor indeed Donald J. Trump. But there are ways of winning that make captains out of players who would otherwise limit themselves to being no more than cricketers. Amla must find that way.

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