There is no better way to bring in a new year than to cheer a man who can be honest about himself without slipping into the hypocrisy of false humility or delivering a sermon to tell the world what a good boy he is. So raise a bat to Hashim Amla, now the former captain of the South African cricket team, who resigned from a dream job when there was no demand for departure. Amla left because he decided that his contribution to his side as a batting backbone was being affected by his responsibilities as a captain.
Most cricket captains are batsmen. This is not because batting belongs to some superior caste in the game; bowling is much harder work, with more pain and less glamour. There have been great bowler-captains: Richie Benaud of Australia and our own Kapil Dev come to mind. [All-rounders like Ian Botham or Imran Khan are in a different category.] But if selectors mostly prefer batsmen it is for a good reason. A batsman tends to have a better vantage view in the overall management of the long game. A captain is only properly tested in a five-day Test. In the 20-over variety a captain is about as useful as the captain of a football team; relevant, but not essential. As for the one-day match, we could make a good case that the captain should preferably be an all-rounder. But that is another story.
Cricket is a slow game at its finest level, and creates space for tactical variations as well as strategic decisions. A Test captain needs to analyse the progress of a game continuously, intervene every three or four overs or so when fielding, and try and control the pace of runs when his side is batting. Hashim Amla was a thinking captain as well as a thoughtful human being, judging by the manner in which he played from his debut. He has always walked, and built a deserved reputation for integrity. But it is the long walk he took from the captaincy, in the middle of a tough series against England, which will define his memory.
South Africa has had a poor run under his leadership. Controversies about the pitch could not quite hide the fact that the Africans were mauled during their recent series in India. In any case, using the pitch as an alibi is a curious argument. Both sides, after all, have to play on the same pitch; so if it is bad, it is bad for both. No one “accuses” an English groundsman of “doctoring” when a green-top helps pacers, so why do commentators go curvy when a brown-top does its bit for spinners? It is pertinent to note that Hashim Amla did not indulge in gratuitous excuses when he lost the India series. His problems were compounded by the fact that his own scores were dismal.
The pattern continued when England won the first Test of the current series in South Africa, outplaying their opponents in every department, and then piling on a mammoth first innings score in the second Test. The game was as good as lost when Amla came to bat. His double century not only re-established his value as batsman; his leadership rescued his credibility as captain. Do not ever believe that a captain has nothing to do when he is sitting in the box while his side bats. He defines the role of every player through the innings; he is the shepherd with a silent nudge.
Hashim Amla resigned at the precise moment when he had cleared doubt. He left when he was back at the top, both as player and leader. If selectors punished captains for a bad trot, no captain would survive more than two or three seasons — at the outside. Even viciously competitive football owners take their time over failing managers. Amla was not being pushed. He took the call on his own, in what he deemed to be the best interests of his national side. You do not get many such examples. Let us not mention names, but captains hang on to the power they have, for this power brings overt and covert financial rewards.
It would be serious exaggeration to insist that cricket remains what is quaintly described as a “gentleman’s game”. Cricket now has as many gentlemen, or ruffians, as any other. This is neither good nor bad, just inevitable, in a republican age when values — or the lack of them — are not class-specific, and serious money goes to those who can sell products. But when a gentleman does turn up in sports, it is reason for celebration. Destiny can offer anyone a role, but it is up to an individual to become a model.