Captaincy in sport, especially cricket, is often treated with overblown reverence. Hashim Amla’s decision to hand the Test leadership to AB de Villiers halfway through the series against England was treated like breaking news of global significance. It wasn’t.
Amla is an inspirational person and player, but he is not an inspirational leader in either a tactical or motivational sense. It is neither a fault nor a criticism.
He is mature and has a more balanced perspective on life and the game than most of his teammates, which has allowed him to deal with personal issues on his own. Trusting his teammates to do likewise was understandable, but not always practical or possible.
He reads the game on the field as well as anybody who has worn the Protea shirt, but only with the uncluttered view of a senior player. His observations, comments and suggestions were invaluable to his predecessor, Graeme Smith, and to his successor, AB de Villiers, in the one-day international side, but only when he wasn’t the man who had to pull the trigger.
Young and inexperienced players need a shoulder to lean on, or even cry on, but Amla’s calmness and serenity made it seem inappropriate for them to seek succour and comfort from him. For a senior player rather than captain, that dynamic changes. Advice will be far more accessible, a fact that Amla acknowledged: “I’ll be able to guide and invest more time in players like Temba Bavuma without having to worry about bowling changes and this and that,” he said.
Back in the late 1990s, South Africa played against a Pakistan team that contained seven players who had been, at one time, the captain. It was the opposite extreme, of course, but should nevertheless serve as a salient reminder that captaincy is still a job, like keeping wicket or opening the batting. The esteem with which the position is regarded in South Africa is not quite as quasi-sociopolitical as it is in England or Australia, but it’s not far behind.
The England cricket captain is placed on a pedestal far above most politicians and comfortably alongside celebrities, while in Australia he is almost guaranteed to be named “Australian of the Year” if he presides over a couple of Ashes victories. South Africa still has a little of that colonial hangover.
Amla insisted that his decision was based purely on the simple assertion that “somebody else could do a better job” and his employers at Cricket South Africa – not to mention supporters – should not just take him at his word but use that sentiment as a benchmark for the way future captains are appointed and judged.
The very best teams may feature prominent captains, but dig a little deeper and a strong core – a “leadership group”, as Amla described it – will almost always be found. Successful Test captains may be larger-than-life characters with a perception that they rule their teams with an iron fist, but five days is a long time to play together in a single game – and spending months on tour is even harder.
The suggestion that Amla’s decision will be disruptive to the team in the middle of the series is ridiculous and uninformed. Quite the opposite will be true. South Africa’s rousing fightback in the second Test at Newlands this week has transformed one of the bleakest periods in recent times for the Test squad, having been thrashed 3-0 in India last month and again by England in the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead.
The collective mood among the players darkened further in Durban when De Villiers was unable to categorically deny that he was considering retiring from Test cricket. The prospect of him walking away from the Proteas was like family abandonment. Now that he is captain, the metaphorical group hug will be tighter and stronger than ever.
The reassuring serenity of Amla, and his runs, will be back. De Villiers will deliver those passionate speeches the ODI side has become used to hearing and everybody will start to believe that anything and everything is possible, even that they can be as good as he is. Preposterous notion, of course, but that’s De Villiers for you.
Equally absurd is the thought that Amla will, in any way, be diminished as a cricketer or a person. Once again, the opposite will be the case. It was tough to imagine his respect being enhanced before this series, but that is the case now. He acknowledged that he could not resist the “ultimate accolade” when offered the job but also, now, that the team needs his runs more than his captaincy and that he is not the best man for the job.
Bavuma, meanwhile, faces the prospect of months of distraction, having scored an emotional and deeply significant century at Newlands. Makhaya Ntini was introduced to the national squad 18 years ago to a background of mutters and frowns about “merit”. He went on to become one of the great fast bowlers of all time. Expectation can be a wicked thing.
Fortunately, Amla will now be free to provide that shoulder and a word of advice to Bavuma, if and when it’s needed.