So long, Hash … last of our great marathoners

Hashim Amla (Gallo)
Hashim Amla (Gallo)

Cape Town – So who is left to produce those really big ‘uns?

That is the scary issue for South Africans to contemplate, particularly but not exclusively from a Test point of view, in the wake of Hashim Amla’s decision on Thursday to step down from all international cricket.

Somehow it seemed typical -- even deliberate, maybe? -- that the unassuming 36-year-old from Durban should make his revelation on the eve of a long weekend, when eyes tend to be less vividly trained on the news than would ordinarily be the case.

Perhaps he took a bit of a leaf from a similarly run-plundering Proteas predecessor he shared a rich mutual respect and plentiful swollen partnerships with: Jacques Kallis, who quit Tests at Christmas, when the proverbial printing presses are idle, in 2013.

Amla never noticeably sought the spotlight, or cherished the superstardom he undeniably retires with.

His manner at the crease was serene, unfussed and famously, somehow, virtually sans sweat – even when he had been there for sessions on end and sometimes during the special demands of the religious fasting period he so dutifully adhered to.

Amla was never as conspicuously cavalier as others in the game (there were long periods of his earlier career where he seldom opted for the pull or hook), but beauty still so wonderfully eclipsed butchery in much of his stroke-play.

His predominant penchant was to glide, steer and caress the ball, though his trademark thriller for the purist was the incomparable way he whipped it square or behind square with searing velocity on the off-side with that billion-dollar wristiness, or flicked it majestically off his legs.

And durability? Boy, that came in bucket-loads at his generous-spanned peak.

Much of his career heyday was at the fulcrum of a (now well less stocked, worryingly) period of genuine South African dominators at the crease; players capable of batting for the best part of two days in Test matches for gigantic individual scores or with the determination and stamina to sometimes turn centuries in the ODI fold into innings of 150 or more.

Kallis, Graeme Smith, most certainly Amla … they were very much part of that club, and joined occasionally by the naturally more buccaneering likes of Hershelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers, which meant those two were capable of posting truly weighty innings across the formats as well.

Backed up by a normally penetrative pace arsenal, it explained why the Proteas got to the top of the ICC Test rankings more than once during Amla’s prime and were seldom far off the top of the pile in white-ball terms as well.

The country owes him a debt of gratitude, in addition, for being -- just a little surprisingly -- our only representative of the “300 elite” in the extended format: players to have registered triple centuries.

There are 30 instances of treble-tons in Tests (including Brian Lara’s freak 400), with Amla’s 790-minute vigil for 311 not out against England at The Oval in 2012 slotting him at No 21 for bulkiest Test score ever.

He is second only to Kallis (13,206) in history for most Test runs by a South African – it will be a considerable time before Amla’s 9,282 are overhauled, as the next nine players on the list are all no longer active and men like Faf du Plessis (a distant 3,608) and Dean Elgar (3,412) are already at quite advanced stages of their careers.

Amla dedicated some 15 years to the national cause, including a stint as Test captain that, I suspect, he may feel he was just a little too cajoled into, against his so often sound own instincts and clearly-defined aspirations.

Exemplary service to the collective cause was almost certainly more his forte than leadership … there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, is there?

He isn’t the first cricketer to have slipped statistically toward the end, perhaps never quite willing or able to comprehend the mental and physical toll the globetrotting treadmill can take on an individual, sometimes with unforgiving and irreversible suddenness.

I prefer to remember Amla’s very top-of-game years, where he was averaging around the giddying mid-fifties in both Tests and one-day internationals.

Simply, that’s superlative stuff.

Remember that it took SA brains trusts of the era more time than it should have to recognise the limited-overs potential in a player who would later go on to incredibly monopolise the “fastest to” landmarks for every thousand ODI runs between 2,000 and 7,000.

It was only some three and a half years after his late 2004 Test debut that he was first capped in the 50-overs game, and I had the pleasure of being present -- even if it was at a bleak Benoni -- to witness in November 2008 his maiden century (140) in the format against Bangladesh: another 26 would follow, a South African record that holds firm, just seeing off De Villiers’s 25.

Hashim Mahomed Amla has been a quiet, routinely gracious and light-on-ego ambassador for South Africa, almost unanimously well liked and respected wherever he ventured on the planet.

It may be prudent in these times to say there aren’t enough people like him?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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